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.