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REVIEW: Brothers of the Night

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“Soft boys by day, kings by night” goes this film’s misleading tagline. There’s nothing faux-sensitive about the daytime conversations of the titular ‘brothers’, and nothing remotely regal about their nocturnal activities.

This is an intelligently made documentary about a group of young Bulgarian Roma (gypsy) men, all of whom moved to Vienna looking for work – mostly to support their families – but have ended up as prostitutes. They’re referred to only by their given names (Stefan, Yonko, Nikolay etc.). The content segues seamlessly between interviews and subtly stylised re-enactments. The former take place as they sit around drinking, smoking and playing pool. There are graphic descriptions of what their (male) customers have wanted, and of the occasional frightening incident. Everything is related matter-of-factly and with no self-pity – just an element of bitter irony.

That said, candour seems to coexist here with an element of self-delusion. There’s a lot of talk about moving on, finding a normal job, “buying” a wife and the like. On the other hand, the recurring discussions about maximising income in the short term – how much the johns pay for various services, how to make the most Euros in one night – get tedious, however understandable they might be. Still, the ‘brothers’ are basically an affable bunch, and their camaraderie is touching.

In its own terms, Brothers Of The Night succeeds well enough.  It’s sad, but mercifully free of overt moralising, which makes the occasional stark statement – “I don’t know what my life is good for”, “Everyone is dead to me… – all the more affecting.  And, without giving the slightest sense of a sentimental cop-out, the relatively happy closing scene in a bar rounds it off very well.

 
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REVIEW: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

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Was anyone actually hanging for the return of extreme sports secret agent, Xander Cage? Were we really hungry for more of this franchise, which already changed leading men once when Ice Cube stepped into the top job in only the first sequel? Whatever, we’ve got one, and here’s the thing: it’s a lot of fun. In fact, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the best xXx movie so far, if that isn’t damning it with faint praise.

What saves this film is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Right out of the gate we’re hit with cartoony pop-up character bios, cameos and cute in-jokes before we’re rapidly thrown into the thankfully simple plot. A McGuffin called Pandora’s Box can allow bad guys to drop satellites out of orbit with pinpoint accuracy. With the world being held to ransom, steely black ops spook, Marke (Toni Collette, vaguely uncomfortable with all this nonsense), recruits the only man who can get the job done – Vin Diesel’s titular extreme bro.

But wait – isn’t he dead? They actually made a short film, The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage, to underline the fact. Well, never you mind, there’s no time for such trifling issues as continuity and plausibility when the fate of the world is at stake. Not being a man with much respect for the military hard nuts he’s been saddled with, Cage recruits his own team of rebellious operatives: Ruby Rose’s animal activist sniper, Rory McCann’s (yes, G0T‘s The Hound) paranoid stunt driver, and Kris Wu’s, uh, DJ? Sure, why not?


All the extra personnel are more than warranted, though, as the plot device has been swiped by a team of international super-thieves, including Ong Bak‘s Tony Jaa and Indian superstar Deepika Padukone, led by none other than Rogue One MVP, Donnie Yen. Thus the biggest suspension of disbelief problem you’ll have here is not the extreme stunts and the sometimes shoddy CGI, it’s the notion that Vin or, indeed, almost anyone, can go toe to toe with guys who have been kicking people in the head for a living for literally decades.

 

For all that Diesel is the star of the show – and the film goes to absurd lengths to portray him as a superhuman sexual tyrannosaur – he’s arguably the weakest link, mugging for the camera and delivering ludicrous tough guy lines while Yen radiates cool just by standing there. He comes across in a much better light if you can frame his antics as self-aware parody, but that may be a stretch. Still, he makes for a suitable point of focus and catalyst for things to explode around, and that is what we’re here for.

The action is huge fun, and while it never approaches the heights of, say, the recent insta-classic, John Wick, director DJ Caruso shows flair for staging, choreography and, most importantly, editing; while still well within the framework of modern rapid-cut action construction, you can always tell what’s going on. Again, though, CGI-assisted Diesel is no match for the likes of Yen and Jaa; that most certainly is not Vin skiing down a jungle mountain, while that most certainly is Yen (who is, lest we forget, 53 years old) destroying opponents in the boardroom fight scene.

Of course, if you expect any of this to come within spitting distance of “realism”, you’re gonna have a bad time, The xXx universe runs on the Rule of Cool, and any kind of narrative contrivance is allowable if it opens up the opportunity for a cool stunt or a fun cameo. If you’re okay with that, there are points that’ll have you cheering; if you’re not, you clearly wandered into the wrong cinema.

Return of Xander Cage is a far from perfect film, but it’s a fantastically enjoyable one. It rarely drops out of fourth gear, sprinting from setpiece to setpiece, too caught up in its own sense of fun to worry if any of this makes any kind of sense. That glib, rebellious attitude is infectious, and it’ll be a rare grinch who doesn’t want to come along for the ride.

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REVIEW: Split

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Director M. Night Shyamalan’s previous film, The Visit (2015) was such a charming return to form one couldn’t help but feel a sense of cautious optimism for his next effort. Apparently this hope was not unfounded and Night’s creative second wind (or Shyamalaissance if you will) continues with Split, a dark, Hitchcockian thriller with a sting in its tail.

Split’s premise is a simple one. After a supervised birthday party, three teenage girls are kidnapped in broad daylight. Popular girls and friends, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and twitchy loner only-invited-out-of-sympathy, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) all find themselves at the mercy of Kevin (James McAvoy), who imprisons them together in a windowless room in an unknown location. It soon becomes clear to the trio of unfortunates that their captor suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) aka multiple personalities, and they literally don’t know who they’ll be talking to from moment to moment.

The use of DID as a plot device is a hoary old thriller trope that has been trotted out in Psycho, Raising Cain and a slew of lesser films, and in clumsier hands could have come off as silly or exploitative. Happily, Night’s direction combined with a stunning performance from James McAvoy makes Kevin and his 22 other personalities simultaneously an intimidating threat and a source of genuine pathos. Kevin’s personas range from a bespectacled neat freak, to a sensual femme fatale, to a confused nine-year-old boy and more, and they all talk of the coming of dark new personality known only as “the beast”.

It would be doing the film a disservice to elaborate further on the narrative, but needless to say there are plenty of tense moments and genuine surprises. While the film loses a little momentum in the second act, the final third is spectacular, and takes the story in new directions without relying on a gimmicky twist. Night’s direction is minimalist and moody, and the central performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (who was similarly fabulous in The Witch) and Betty Buckley (who plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s shrink) ground the more unlikely story elements. Ultimately, though, this is McAvoy’s film and the 37-year-old Scottish actor absolutely kills in this role, giving it everything he has and creating an unforgettable cinematic villain.

Split is a low budget, B-grade thriller elevated by taut, suspenseful direction and a stunning lead performance. Its treatment of mental illness is unlikely to win fans in the medical community, but as engaging, compelling escapism it’s a wild ride worth taking.

 
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REVIEW: Patriots Day

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Bringing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings to the screen was always going to be a difficult task, but also a popular one. At one point there were three separate film projects based on the attack in development, and it’s easy to understand why: the combination of tragedy, heroism, patriotism, and the emergent “Boston Strong” movement is a heady brew, particularly for American audiences. It’s Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, who has managed to get his project over the line first, working once again with his regular star, Mark Wahlberg, and the results are powerfully affecting while still occasionally drifting into the problematic.

Starting in the wee hours before the marathon and subsequent bombing, we meet a number of disparate characters, most of them based on actual people, and one who, particularly, is not: Wahlberg’s hard-drinking Southie cop, Tommy Saunders. That’s a bit of an issue, because he’s our chief point of view character, and it’s through him that we mainly experience the attack, the investigation, and even the capture of bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff). Apparently Wahlberg is there to represent all law enforcement as a kind of gestalt character, but it does gall a little that our way into this event is through a man who patently doesn’t exist.

Walhberg is supported by a strong roster of talent portraying the various actual participants in the events, among them John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis; JK Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who was instrumental in the judicial killing of bomber,  Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze); and Kevin Bacon as FBI SAC Richard DesLauriers. You don’t get an on-screen team like that together without getting good performances, and they all convey the drama, pathos and horror of the situation admirably.

The film also does extremely well in contextualising the lives of the people caught up in the event, letting us spend time with them before the crisis hits, including MIT Police Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), who was killed by the fleeing terrorists, and student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who was kidnapped by them. We’re not allowed to think of these people as faceless victims, even in the scenes where the street is littered with the injured and maimed – Berg focuses in on a handful of the victims and forces us to connect with them, heightening the emotion considerably.

For all the filmmaking nous on display – and on a technical level Patriots Day is an extraordinarily well made work – there are serious tonal problems as Berg and his team struggle to reconcile the demands of the meticulous real-life drama the film really wants to be, the action thriller Berg is clearly more comfortable staging, and that particularly American brand of patriotism (or even jingoism, if you’re feeling uncharitable) that runs through all of the director’s recent output. There are a number of moments when the truth of the moment presented is punctured by an on-the-nose line, such as a uniformed cop shouting, “Welcome to Watertown, motherfucker!” during the climactic shoot out. At others, we get a shot of fluttering stars and bars that lingers a little too long, or a demonstration of intense patriotic pride that verges on the uncomfortable. To a non-American viewer these things are jarring; it’s interesting to speculate if they are so woven into the fabric of US society as to be invisible, or at least unremarkable, to an American viewer.

There are also numerous departures from the recorded facts of the case, but perhaps that’s allowable – this is not a documentary after all, and the broad strokes of what is depicted hold up. The emotional impact of what we see on the screen is unimpeachable, but still it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is a better, more nuanced, and graceful way to tell this story. Patriots Day‘s faults never sink it, but what we’ve got here is a very good film, when it should have been a great one.

 
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REVIEW: The Last Guardian

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“Fuck you, you stupid fucking feathered fuckwit!” That’s me screaming at the telly and punching my couch while playing The Last Guardian. I’m not proud of myself.

“Oh how enchanting and lyrical. It’s lovely.” That’s me again, still playing The Last Guardian, mesmerised by the visual poetry unfolding.

“JUMP! Jump, you fucker, JUMP! I’m pressing JUMP! WHY WON’T YOU JUMP, YOU BAFFLE-WITTED PRICK? JUMP!” That’s also me, a few minutes later, hating The Last Guardian with every hairy fibre of my being.

Welcome to The Last Guardian review. Truly it was the extremely brief best of times and the frequent, enraging worst of times.

The Last Guardian is a game with baggage. Team Ico – the renowned developers responsible for Ico (2001) and absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus (2005) – began work on the title way back in 2007.

The game was delayed so frequently it became a running joke, like Half-Life 3 and Final Fantasy XV. Well, FFXV arrived and so has The Last Guardian and although this sounds strange to say about a game that has appeared almost a decade after its inception: it really needed further development.

The Last Guardian’s story, like all Team Ico efforts, is basic and told through visuals and actions, rather than extended cutscenes. You play as a young boy who wakes up in a gloomy pit, covered with strange tattoos and no memory of how he got there. You’ll soon find a huge winged bird/dog/cat hybrid, Trico, next to you chained up and injured. After pulling spears from the great beast’s hide, and giving him some glowing barrels to eat, you and Trico begin to form an unlikely alliance and try to understand the situation you’re both in.

The concept of a boy and his monster on an epic adventure is a good one, and Trico is an impressive creation. Beautifully animated and featuring an AI that makes him seem like a living creature, one can’t help but be impressed by the work of director, Fumito Ueda and his dedicated team.

That sense of respect dwindles, however, when you actually start playing the game in earnest. Put simply The Last Guardian’s controls are absolutely woeful. The little boy wanders around and staggers over objects just like a real little boy, but his imprecise movements, while visually impressive, soon become annoying when exacting jumps and fiddly climbing are required. Worse than the boy’s controls, however, is Trico. A few hours into the game you’ll be able to give Trico commands, to jump, stop, follow and so on. Trico actually heeding those commands, however, seems to be up to the mysterious whims of chance.

Now it’s true in real life one wouldn’t expect a wild beast to behave obediently but a game needs to have a sense of consistency. I lost count of the number of times I knew how to solve a puzzle but Trico simply wouldn’t obey and I was unable to progress. I’d punch the couch a few times, hurl obscenities and rage quit. Later on, I’d load up the game and Trico would do it on the first go. Needing to reset the entire game to get past a puzzle isn’t good game design, it’s a bug and a fiercely annoying one at that.

That’s not to say The Last Guardian is without its charms. When everything’s working properly there is a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction to be gained from solving a tough puzzle, or getting Trico out of a sticky situation. The problem is the game is so inconsistent it’s hard to tell whether you’re stuck because you haven’t found the solution or the game’s AI has just popped out the back for a smoke, and will return when it’s good and bloody ready.

It’s hard to be swept away by visual poetry when you’re rage grinding your teeth into a fine powder.

Ultimately The Last Guardian is an acquired taste. If you can handle inconsistent, buggy AI and awkward, cumbersome controls you may find something to love here – other people certainly have.

However, for me, The Last Guardian was mostly an exercise in enraging, furniture-abusing frustration only occasionally leavened by moments of magical whimsy.

 
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Sherlock S4E3: “The Final Problem”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Sherlock is over so quickly isn’t it? One week you’re celebrating its return and less than a month later, you’re waving it bon voyage. And after the last two weeks of plotting, it’s no surprise the fervour people had for this – the final episode of Season 4 and, potentially, the last episode of Sherlock for a very long time.

It’s little wonder that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writing together as they did for The Abominable Bride, wanted to give their supporters something to wave their flags to. Think of The Final Problem as the Greatest Hits of Sherlock, with choice cuts of your favourite moments repackaged into a handy 90-minute feast. Sadly, as pleasant as it is to see the two writers clearly having fun in their sandbox, the real problem for the viewer was trying to work out how the two previous episodes could justify such a lukewarm finale.

Having revealed a third Holmes sibling and putting the life of John Watson (Martin Freeman) in danger last week, we were given a rather rushed resolution as to the Doctor’s fate.

Apparently, Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock’s evil sister, had merely stunned Watson and run away. An impossibility according to brother Mycroft (Gatiss) who insisted that she was trapped within a super-prison by the name of Sherrinford which was stuck on an island out to sea. All of which was a massive surprise to Sherlock, who had completely forgotten he’d ever had a sister. If that part sounds like a tough pill to swallow, The Final Problem produced a number of other headscratchers that unfortunately lowered the plausibility of its narrative.

Things started off strong with a small girl waking up on a plane in which all its passengers and crew had passed out. Answering a ringing phone in the hopes of calling for help, she’s greeted by the voice of the late consulting criminal, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Elsewhere, having escaped the detonation of 221b Baker Street – another one of Eurus’ games – the Brothers Holmes and Watson break into Sherrinford to understand how the meddling sister is able to break out.

Before continuing, it should be noted that Sherlock has dipped its toe in the surreal before. Season 2’s The Hounds of Baskerville, for instance, attributed its hell hound to psychotropic gas. Indeed, the very idea of Sherlock himself is a flight of fancy in the real world. However, The Final Problem was something else.

Sherlock_s4_Ep3_006-strictly-embargoed-for-publication-until-0001-hrs-GMT-10.01.2017

As well as being superior to her brothers intellectually, Eurus was shown to be able to ‘reprogramme’ those around her and, as such, had unbelievably managed to take over her own asylum, giving her free passage to leave her island prison as and when she felt like it. Spurred on by a meeting with Moriarty several years prior – in a hilarious cameo by Scott –  she had decided to take her vengeance out on Sherlock for reasons that never feel satisfactory. Over the last few seasons, a lot has been made of the name Redbeard and its influence on Sherlock’s persona. Previously thought of to be a beloved pet, the final twist turned out to be something much sinister and had led to Eurus’ incarceration. Gatiss and Moffat try to turn what would be a childhood trauma for Sherlock into a reason for his thirst for solving mysteries. But as an attempt to give Sherlock back his humanity, it just didn’t convince.

Neither did the system of Saw-like problems Eurus put her siblings through, with a different room in Sherrinford leading to a new and deadly conundrum. As Eurus pulled her brothers’ strings, the continuing train of thought was ‘How can she afford to do all this? Literally, who is funding this person?’ and ‘Does anybody remember John had a baby daughter?’ When the girl on the plane was revealed to be Eurus in a mind palace of her own waiting for Sherlock’s approval, The Final Problem revealed itself to be trying too hard.

Thank heavens then for the positives that didn’t make this a complete washout. Take for example Molly, played by Louise Brealey. Criminally underused this season, Brealey brought much needed emotion in a scene that saw her bare her soul to Sherlock, whilst being an unwitting pawn in Eurus’s schemes. As we cheer on Sherlock’s sociopathic qualities, we often forget how they can deeply cut others. It was a wonderful moment, only somewhat surpassed by Mrs Hudson thrashing around to Iron Maiden in her slippers.

As the dust settled, Sherlock ended, as perhaps it was always going to, with a massive press of the reset button that allowed Gatiss and Moffat to bring a close to their 6-year story in a deserved self-congratulatory tone, whilst tentatively leaving the tiniest of margins for a possible return. And whilst this wasn’t the ending some of us will have been expecting, the journey to get this far has at least consisted of more highs than lows, with a heavy vein of experimentation throughout. For that reason alone, Sherlock is still, as a whole, a quality British drama.

 
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REVIEW: Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy XV is one of the weirdest AAA game releases in years. Like, wearing-a-traffic-cone-on-your-head and yelling-at-guide-dogs-about-the-impending-invasion-of-lizard-people nutso. It’s also endearingly charming and hard to dislike, at least in the first two thirds of the experience.

FFXV tells the tale of Prince Noctis and his mates Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto who are off on an epic road trip, the end of which will see Noct marry the beautiful and ethereal Lunafreya. Not to mince words but the lead foursome look like a boy band circa 1990. Their fashion choices are somewhere between camp, baffling and clown shoes, so it’s initially a little jarring when you realise you’re actually meant to take the escapades of these gaudily-clad adventurers seriously.

When we first control the gang they’re pushing their broken-down supercar to a 1950s style petrol station and diner, where a half-naked blonde lady who inexplicably talks in a yeee-hah southern American accent tells you she’ll fix your ride if you go and kill some monsters for her.

At this point you’ll either need to go along for the ride or eject the disc immediately. If you can get past the mishmash of tones and genres, you’ll soon find the game’s charms are many. For one thing it’s absolutely gorgeous: the four leads move, chat, hang out and cook in organic-looking, vivid ways in stunning, massive environments. The revamped combat system is also visually splendid and a lot deeper than it first appears, although players seeking classic turn based combat will be disappointed.

What really sells the game, if you let it, are the four lead characters. As the story kicks into high gear and takes the foursome to dark and dangerous places, the initially ludicrous-looking band become a more substantive and emotionally rich group. Yes, it’s bizarre to see a game that has you fighting giant water demons while texting on your mobile phone, but it’s so gloriously silly that you can’t help but grin.

Less smile-worthy, however, is the final third of the game where the open world structure is more or less abandoned and it all becomes a bit of a linear slog. You’ll probably want to push through to see the ending, which is surprisingly emotional, but it’s a pity the more open structure couldn’t go the distance.

Final Fantasy XV plays like the idle fever dream of a horny Japanese teenager passed out and listening to their iPod on shuffle. It’s weird, silly, occasionally baffling and quite a lot of fun – if you can leave your sense of logic and reason at the door and embrace the high camp lunacy.

 

 
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REVIEW: Toni Erdmann

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It is not every day that you get to say this and mean it as a reviewer, but this is a work of art. New German director Maren Ade made this monumental domestic drama last year and, although it missed out unfairly at Cannes, it has been chosen as Germany’s film for the Oscars. Let us hope this ‘uncommercial’ film gets a decent cinema release.

The work is unusual in taking its time to draw us into the lives of the strange characters. Actually they are not really much stranger than most people but, as the fridge magnet philosophy says, the only normal people are people you don’t know very well. No one could accuse the eponymous Toni (Peter Simonischek) of hiding his eccentricities. He has recently retired from teaching and he decides to go on a trip and to try and re-connect with his only daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She is working for an asset-stripping management consultancy firm, and she has been posted to Romania where they are trying to massage a local boss into accepting their standard advice and shed labour costs. Ines spends a lot of time with her uptight consultancy colleagues; these include various slick-suit male bosses and an adoring young female personal assistant. She is also having a desultory fling with a junior manager type. When dad arrives and unexpectedly starts haunting Ines’ corporate events wearing various ridiculous costumes, the tension levels become unbearable.

Critics wanted to pigeonhole the film as a black comedy (there are laugh-out-loud moments) but the director – who shot this three-hour epic over fifty-five days with thirty takes at a time – set out to do something much subtler and challenging. Moments are both funny and tragic. At a deeper level Ines knows that her job is bullshit and even a little destructive, but that’s the modern globalised world isn’t it? She also cares about her slightly lost father and knows that he cares deeply about her. In a way by ruining her life he is saving it, but salvation is painful. You will have to go a very long way to see a more moving portrait of the relationship between a father and his child. Of course no amount of praise will actually persuade people that this is worth submitting to. Only the film itself can do that. Here is another way to look at it. It is only half an hour longer than the average comic book spin-off and about a hundred times more sustaining. Go!

 
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Viva

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Director Paddy Breathnach and writer Mark O’Halloran’s feature Viva may be set in Havana, Cuba, but its emotional truths are universal. Viva is a discussion on gender, masculinity and transformation. It’s about feelings of the past clashing with the hope of the future.

The film’s protagonist is Jesus, played by the impressive Héctor Medina; a backstage hand at a local drag (or transformista to use the local term) club. Jesus leads a content but meagre existence hairdressing and styling the wigs for the numerous transformista acts. It’s during these moments we meet a vibrant collection of characters, including maternal Mama (Luis Alberto García) and the acidic Cindy (Luis Manuel Alvarez). When an opportunity arises to tread the boards himself as his alter ego, Viva, it appears to be a dream come true. Unfortunately, around the same time, Jesus’ father, Angel (Jorge Perugorria) re-enters his life after a decade behind bars.

Alcoholic and vitriolic, Angel is initially set up to be the clear antagonist, admonishing Jesus for his ‘unmasculine’ desires. Clearly afraid of his father, Jesus still tries to maintain a balance between his family life and his life as Viva. Whilst it’s an engaging drama by its own right, it would be remiss not to mention the transformista performances that punctuate the at times gritty atmosphere. As Jesus’ relationship with his estranged father begins to evolve, so too does Viva’s performances; starting from simply lip-synching her songs to truly understanding and living the lyrics.

Heartbreakingly, Jesus wants to do right in both worlds, even as one rejects him for who he is; the dichotomy between the entrapment of his father and his freedom on stage look set to break Jesus/Viva in two. A final act revelation might overtly signpost where Viva eventually leads to, but its emotions wash over you to transcend it.

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

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A cross cultural 20-year exercise in musical fusion and communication, the Silk Road Ensemble is the brainchild of Chinese-American cellist (and Seinfeld nonsequitir) Yo-Yo Ma, who brings together a loose conglomerate of musicians from across Eurasia to create what you might term “real” world music – music not beholden to any one place or culture. The Music of Strangers, by 20 Feet From Stardom director, Morgan Neville, tells its story.

As the name of the group suggests, the project’s personnel tend to be drawn from countries along the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that stretches across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The sound they make is exotic to Western ears, a vibrant mix of Ma’s lifelong classical training (he was a child prodigy who performed for Kennedy at the age of seven) and the weird spice-mix of influences his players bring, combining the folk traditions of two continents. When the music is playing, the film is effortlessly captivating.

When the strings aren’t singing, though, The Music of Strangers is an oddly distant affair. We spend plenty of time with Ma and his musicians and we get a sense of the history and intent of the Ensemble, but there’s a weird lack of real insight into the process – and Ma himself. Indeed, perhaps the best clues we get to Ma’s process and personality come from his son, who says at one point that as a child he thought his dad worked at the airport, given how he was always coming and going from there. The exact mechanics of creating this music with these people, melding these influences with those instruments, remain obscure, which is a shame.

But not a deal-breaker. Spending time with individual members of the Ensemble is a joy – you’ve surely never seen anyone play Black Sabbath on a Japanese biwa before, right? Their personal stories lend credence to Ma’s stated aim of bringing people together through music, as we learn where they came from, what they sacrificed in pursuit of musical excellence, and how they came to be recruited for the project.

Ultimately, The Music of Strangers is a look at, rather than into, The Silk Road Ensemble – but it’s still a look worth taking.