Sunday, July 17, 2005

You Can't Define Forever

Amici Forever. Defined. Sony, 2005.

Although the idea of jazzing (or rocking?) up classical music has been competently managed for decades by the likes of P.D.Q. Bach, Mannheim Steamroller, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the various orchestral, rock, and parodic compositions or remixes presented by the aforementioned groups pale in comparison before the two recent offerings of the British group Amici Forever. Their first album, The Rock Opera Band is a shocking and classy blend of time-tested melodies, beautiful lyrics, and voices that melt the silence. Their second offering, Defined, is even better, if that is even possible.

One of the primary objectives of the group is to preserve the integrity of the old songs while adding something new. Their liner notes constantly explain how the songs were chosen and compiled, and the additions of drums and more vibrant tempos is hardly a distraction. A familiar adagio by Albinoni is remaade with the rich tones of human voices replacing the organ traditionally associated with the piece. The original composition "So Far Away," melds the singers' voices with Celtic pipes, soft drums, and a gently plucked guitar. The voices are exquisite and blend so smoothly that it is occasionally difficult to distinguish one singer from the next; the arrangements are classy and classic all at once, and the overall effect is an album that has not left my CD player since I purchased it.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"Wild Strawberries" Worth Picking

Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries). 1957. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Perf. Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Folke Sundquist, Bjorn Bjelfvenstam, Naima Wifstrand.

Wild Strawberries is a film about memories. Early in the film, Professor Isak Borg (Sjostrom) stares at the ruins of his childhood summer home and comments that his memory of it is stronger than its real presence before him. Suddenly we watch the onscreen ruins blossom into a stately Swedish home, and Borg is caught between age and memory, as his real life collides with dreams of death and recollections of the past.

Traveling cross-country with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Thulin), three young adventurers, and (briefly) a quarreling couple, Borg is not only venerated but often asked for advice. One of the adventurers, Sara (Andersson), bears a striking resemblance to Borg's childhood sweetheart, also a Sara, who is played by the same actress. As the young Sara and the old man draw close, Borg is also able to enjoy the memories of his childhood love and even, perhaps, to accept its unhappy ending. At the same time, he also faces up to the misery behind his relationship with his wife, now deceased. Although it quickly becomes apparent that Borg has never found any truly fulfilling relationships over the course of his life, the friendships he builds with the new Sara and with his daughter-in-law serve as a catharsis for the older states of affairs.

The worst thing about this film were the subtitles, both because it was difficult to imagine them with the inflections of the actors' words and because the momentary attention a viewre is forced to pay to the subtitle breaks the continutity of the film. After fiteen or twenty minutes, however, the subtitles become a little less conspicuous, and the story begins to carry itself. The soundtrack is amazingly subtle yet perfect; at times, it blends in so carefully that it is inconspicuous, while in other scenes it draws the action forward.

Sjostrom's performance as the old professor is remarkable. The transformation from crustiness to gentleness and friendship is unaffected and believable, and Sjostrom is able to carry the weight of an enormous theme frokm conception to conclusion. Bibi Andersson, as well, plays both her roles excellently, even managing to blend certain aspects of her characters to draw out the similarities betewen them while maintaining them as two separate roles. However, my favorite character to watch was easily Marianne. Not only would I enjoy the character were she to appear in real life, but Ingrid Thulin manages to play her sympathetically but unaffectedly. Marianne is blunt and direct but also very endearing, and Thulin's ability to balance both without capitalizing on Marianne's endearing qualities is easily appreciated.

Watching this film requires more mental exertion and focus than do many of our modern films. It is old enough that Bergman does not cater to short attention spans or rely on cheap tricks. It is blunt, honest, and thought-provoking. Watch it if you dare.

Monday, June 06, 2005

"Ocean's Twelve" Acts Eight

Ocean's Twelve. 2004. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vincent Cassel, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Carl Riner, Eddie Jemison, Elliott Gould.

Sequels generally fall short of their cinematographic predecessors, yet although Ocean's Twelve is no exception to this rule, it maintains a decent plot, cast of characters, and several good themes throughout. The story picks up a few years after the end of Ocean's Eleven, with the jealous Terry Benedict (Garcia) determined to make life pain for the eleven men who once robbed his casinos. Ocean's gang has, in the meantime, moved on; most are pursuing new and legitimate lives, careers, and even domestics; the news that they must suddenly repay their enormous debt is shocking and painful. Eventually they end up in Amsterdam, where their larcenies are balanced out by jealous ex-girlfriends, the European network of thieves, Linus' parents, and one particularly forceful rival thief who is determined to shame their attempts.

The cast of Ocean's Twelve, like that of its predecessor, boasts some astonishingly talented actors and also some who are painfully overbilled. Although all of the Twelve are strong actors and very fun to watch, the film, like its predecessor, focuses more on Daniel Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Pitt). Pitt's inability to act as any character other than himself, no matter the demands of the role, is overshadowed, for once, by Julia Roberts, who actually has the opportunity to play herself during the film and, unsurprisingly, offers no distinctions between herself playing Tess Ocean and herself playing herself. However, the problem here lies less with the abundance of superstars and more with Soderbergh's failure to use the numerous other skilled actors and characters available for development and sub-plots. When Linus Caldwell (Damon) begs Rusty for the chance to play a more "central role" the second time around, one has the impression that he refers not merely to the task at hand, but also to his position within the script, and it is a line that could be easily (and perhaps more accurately) argued by several other characters as well.

The film editing was strong but not spectatcular; the music was vibrant and carefully blended to make a very sleek film technically, and overall, the movie had a level of polish and completeness that is a joy to find in a sequel. The addition of a new villain (Cassel), and one so carefully added and motivated, could only benefit the plot; the addition of an interesting complication (Zeta-Jones) on the side of the law gave the script a beautiful sense of life. Truth is stranger than fiction, yet this film pushed and probed at that adage brilliantly. Cassel, in particular, playing the intrigiuing Francois Tolour, took a complex character and made him startlingly believable and frighteningly likeable.

Fans of the first film should assuredly see this sequel; the rest of the world should rent both the same night and watch them together. Although it is possible to see Twelve without Eleven, the connections between the films are strong, and the first film really provides the main foundation for the next. Although the films are not the height of film achievements, they are unified, fun, and strong enough in every way that they will probably and hopefully become classics.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Revenge of the Sith a.k.a. Revenge of the George

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. 2005. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Ian MacDiarmid, Samuel Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and Frank Oz.

Fortunately for all concerned, Revenge of Sith fell short of the legacy of shoddy acting, stilted dialogue, and an absolutely horrific script that Lucas established for his viewers with the other two prequels. While Episode III did contain various hints of these foundational elements, it also managed to convey something beyond repetitive CGI carefully linked by a semblance of a plot; surprisingly, too, one or two of the actors finally managed to make their characters seem more than one-dimensional. Hopefully Lucas was not too appalled by this shocking and unexpected displays of humanity and plausibility sugggested for the first time within this trilogy.

Revenge of the Sith is unlike most films in that the general viewer knows exactly how it must end before even watching a prequel. Surprisingly enough, however, the film took two plot twists I didn't expect and was able, by virtue of the enforced ending, to spend more time fleshing out various scenes without having to worry about whether the audience understood the plot. Unfortunately, most of the scenes thus enhanced would have been better cut; Episode III tended to present long streams of action spotted painfully by Lucas' miseable attempts to create romantic or even meaningful dialogue. The script is rife with cliches, contradictions (Obi-Wan announces to Vader that "Only the Sith use absolutes"), and filler; some effort is taken to portray Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side, yet even this comes across as trite, superficial, and perhaps even a little foolish.

Easily, the best performance of the film belonged to Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu). This is a relatively unbiased comment because I generally loathe Jackson, but in all fairness, he gave a tremendous performance, particularly considering the script. Jackson actually managed to endow Windu with emotion and (dare I say it) humanity without overdoing it, although it could be argued that by turning in such a powerful performance, he failed to comply with the general sub-par acting presented by the rest of the cast. I also must acknowledge that Yoda, not unlike Smeagol from the Lord of the Rings films, is remarkably easy to understand and appreciate, not the least because his programmed actions and acting often seem more natural than those of his cohorts.

Chances are, if you liked the most recent Star Wars films, you'll find Return of the Sith fascinating; if you were distracted from Lucas' ideas by the many flaws of Episodes I and II, you'll see the intensity of these abate, although if you watch the film you will still notice parallel flaws. Those who have watched the other five should obviously see this one as well, if only to complete the series; however, older fans who haven't witnessed the misery of the other prequels could easily give this a miss, as well.