Valhalla (Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art: 11 – 22 Dec.’18)

“I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Do politicians reach Valhalla, that great hall of slain warriors? No, they don’t, and Ronan Jennings’ valiant play shows why. You need to be dead, mighty, and Norse. Jennings’ principal candidate has led a bloody revolution, for sure, but he has a French name and is stuck behind a desk. Still, Joy Division’s Candidate plays on from 1979 and provides the sombre mood music.

Twelve Twelve Theatre’s production is in the Wee Red Bar in the College of Art. It is a handy space but with no stage as such and with only a minimal set it is unfortunately not equipped to suggest the final overthrow of the Imperials by a people’s army.

Four characters find their way through unseen rubble to the seat of power, the old imperial palace that has its vodka store miraculously intact. Guillaume (resolute and deluded by Andrew Johns Cameron) may have won the war but he is plainly rubbish at making peace. ‘His’ city, Belogard, is without water and riots are around every corner. His bright idea to arm the citizenry is not working out as he hoped.

Three women would oppose this megalomaniac, each one – in my book – worthy of a place in Folkvangr, the other Valhalla, presided over by Freyja. Eloise (Hana Mackenzie) is trapped between loyalty to the Leader and a winning humanity; Ingrid (Debi Pirie) has the best lines when she rounds on Guillaume, the born-again fascist; and Zaitsev (Christina Kostopoulou), a cool emissary from a neighbouring state who is there to seize a favourable trade deal from a country in ruins. Surely an available Brexit analogy here?

Forget lofty mythology and Imperial Stormtroopers; the whole idea is too big, too self-important. It helps if you scale Valhalla down, away from chemical weapons and child soldiers, down to comic strip frames. There’s a nasty Colonel Boris in Herge’s child-satirical King Ottokar’s Sceptre and that’s where I see this piece, in 1938, where a plot to overthrow a good ruler is discovered and thwarted (by Tintin and his wee dog). Guillaume, like Hitler, has penned his own Memoirs of the Common Man.

The best is in determined acting, the brutality of a couple of confrontations, and Guillaume’s laughable ignorance of what-to-do-next. Economics is not a minefield that he’s happy in. The worst is in the reduction of history to pop pistols and bombast like ‘tackling a wolf in single combat is the way to high office’, even though Odin would applaud. Regardless, I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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SCO: Rustioni, Mendelssohn (Queens Hall: 6 Dec. ’18)

Image result for mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

“A delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is currently offering a two part programme celebrating Mendelssohn and music in a similar vein.  On Thursday we got two pieces by the main man, along with a Rossini overture and a charming suite of Respighi bonbons, published almost a century later.

 

Whilst the Queens Hall is a welcoming venue with a genial atmosphere of really committed Musica Affecianadi Geriatrica the venue, as an old church, is pretty basic with stackable chairs forming the main stalls whose lack of racking means sightlines are poor, particularly as in this evening’s case where the size of the orchestra meant dispensing with the stage.  We saw the top half of the conductor, the heads of the soloists, and the wind and brass, the strings and woodwind, in glorious invisibility.  This made it frustrating and difficult to engage.

 

One wonders if the excellent young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, knew this, for his style of conducting was endearingly inclusive in terms of rapport with the players and at times almost swaying to the music with frequent flicks of his fine head of hair to engage with the audience.

 

But notwithstanding these built-in disadvantages and compensating factors, the music, and the playing, spoke for themselves in a delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.

 

Mendelssohn was the main event and is what I shall concentrate on but let me say first that Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) delighted us with a ridiculous contrasting opening of pizzicato followed by orchestral chords in a positively Mozartian romp, with special mentions to the oboe of Robin Williams and piccolo of Alison Mitchell.

 

Our lively conductor almost ran back to the podium after minor re-seating between works and got straight into Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 1, which did exactly what it said on the tin, a pleasant collection of instrumental ditties with oboe again to the fore and some strong cello playing from Principal Philip Higham.

 

And now the main attraction, Felix Mendesssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), in the view of many the most precocious musical talent of all time, including Mozart and Schubert; the critical difference between him and Mozart was that his father did not exploit his youthful talents and instead let him grow.  Nonetheless he died aged 38 only a few years longer than Mozart’s 35 and Schubert’s 31, but the latter was disease driven (typhoid or syphilis, depending whom you believe), whilst the former two was almost certainly overwork.  His catalogue is enormously popular, and this evening we got to hear two lesser known works.

 

Mendelssohn’s Two Concert Pieces were in effect small scale concertos for two clarinets, in this case regular B-flat and bass.  The bass clarinet made a pleasant change to hear in these two light, entertaining pieces which while hard to take seriously were none the less enjoyable for that.  SCO Principal Maximiliano Martin and sub Principal William Stafford disported themselves with aplomb and the whole band, and audience, had a great time.

 

I did not know Mendelssohn’s 1st Symphony in C minor at all and was impressed by its structure and depth, late Mozartian in style, and astonishingly, composed when he was 15.  There was no hint of immaturity in this work whatsoever, which the orchestra played with verve and enthusiasm throughout.

 

So, all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of accessible, tuneful music, very well played throughout with everyone, conductor, soloists, band and audience, having a great evening’s entertainment.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 December)

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SCO: Krivine, Chamayou (Usher Hall: 23 Nov.‘18)

Melusine, mermaid to the Plantagenets. A modern “illumination” by Troy Howell.

“Not a question of playing, but interpretation

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was very much looking forward to this concert with its collation of beautiful, early Romantic works all written within 35 years of each other and during the afternoon I listened to recorded interpretations to refresh my memory of them: Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO for the Beethoven (a 1994 recording), Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2014) for the Schumann, and Claudio Abbado and the LSO for the Mendelssohn (1988); a good cross section of interpretational styles over the last 30 years.

 

One should not, generally, compare recorded music with live.  One is essentially a photograph whilst the other  is a painting: technical perfection against the raw result of human artistic endeavour.  Yet I wasn’t comparing the playing, but the interpretation, and for this I point the baton at guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine, a musician whose pedigree is considerable, and whose style, at least on the night, was deeply conservative and –  too often – too slow.  I was reminded of Klemperer or Sir Reginald Goodall, but without their depth.  I was not inspired.  Neither was I convinced by the necessity of putting the double basses on the left and separating the horns from the trumpets and trombones either side of the woodwind.  For a very classical conductor, this was a somewhat enigmatic move.

 

I was wryly amused at the passing of time and customs that have led to these three works, Mendelssohn’s Overture The Fair Melusina, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 4 in G, and Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D Minor (1851 revision) being put on the same programme , as they were all very badly received at their premieres, but perhaps this has, with the passing of time, become a badge of honour.

 

The legend of Melusina is almost too ridiculous to recount but involves a maiden turning into either a sea monster, mermaid or serpent one day a week as punishment for favouring a knight; make of it what you will.  The piece is meant at times to convey the rippling of the sea and the manliness of the knight, but I don’t go with these interpretations.  Given the storyline it is an eleven minute work of considerable meatiness, if not in the Ruy Blas or Fingal’s Cave class.

 

The SCO’s playing was sound with some notable results from the wind section, but overall the impression was an almost ponderous interpretation lacking spontaneity or attack.  This from the people who gave you a simply amazing rendition of Brahms’s four symphonies but four months ago.  Not a question of playing, but interpretation.

 

Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G, but I wonder if they realise how revolutionary it was at the time, and remains today.  A brief solo piano introduction followed by a long orchestral interlude; the orchestra attacking aggressively followed by plaintive murmurings from the piano, almost as if piano and orchestra are in separate rooms and we can hear them both.  It is a glorious work and the second movement Andante con moto divine.

 

Bertrand Chamayou’s playing lacked perfect clarity and precision in the solo entrance.  There was a loss of definition in some of the immensely challenging demi-semi-quaver passages and the orchestral accompaniment was a tad muddy.  I was surprised to see music on top of the piano, if only for occasional reference, rather than reading.  Settling down or lack of rehearsal? Perhaps settling down, because the cadenza was brilliantly executed and as orchestra and soloist got used to each other there were some better dynamics.  In the second movement Andante con moto we heard confident, attacking strings pitted against a soulful, responsive piano.  We concluded with a splendid, fresh lively Rondo (justifiably marked Vivace.)

 

Chamayou obliged us with an encore of the second movement of a Haydn sonata, restful, beautifully played, clear and well phrased.

 

The final work, Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D minor bears the opening remark in my notebook of “Too slow!”. It was a rather pedestrian performance lacking in verve.  It was as if, as for much of the evening, notwithstanding some very good orchestral playing, the music was somehow struggling to get out. The second movement contained some wonderfully rich string playing.  In the Scherzo the horns brought some liveliness to an otherwise rigid interpretation.  The spirited, energised finale Langsam-Lebhaft at last gave one a real lift and the final 20 second coda an insight into what this great little orchestra is capable of.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 November)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Morison (Usher Hall: 12 Oct. ’18)

Illus. Vesper Stamper.
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

“Well played throughout. One has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in programme selection. Often a short warm up piece, followed by a concerto, and after the interval a symphony. Last night we were completely spooked. For sure, we had the symphony after the interval, but we started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2, a good 30 minutes worth, and finished the first half with Ravel’s Scheherazade. That’s right, Ravel’s Scheherazade, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s. I suspect that many people didn’t realise it wasn’t the one they knew until it was over, in about eighteen minutes as opposed to the better known version’s fifty.

 

Moreover, Thomas Sondergard in addressing the audience before the concert started, as is the RSNO custom, pointed out that he had moved the various movements of Peer Gynt around to make for a better musical flow, and it worked. We started, as we absolutely had to, with “Morning Mood”, commonly known as “Morning” and hijacked by virtually everyone from TV commercials to Monty Python. A confident opening with crystal clear flutes and oboes before the glorious strings took over. Following on such well-loved sketches as Solveig’s Song and Anitra’s Dance Sondergard rightly chose to end with the splendidly tub-thumping In the Hall of the Mountain King. The trolls seemed to be clambering all over the Usher Hall as we left for the interval. A much underrated work, I would suggest that the Peer Gynt Suite is one of the most gloriously lyrical orchestral pieces ever written, and the RSNO did more than justice to it.

 

Not unlike its counterpart, Ravel’s Sheherezade is an exotic, ethereal yet sensual piece, and the excellent 2017 first British winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Catriona Morison had less time to get us in the mood. The work comprises just three songs taken from Tristan Klingsor’s poem, Asie (Asia), La Flute Enchantee (The Enchanted Flute) and L’Indifferent (The Heedless One). At first a little arid in interpretation and finding balance with the orchestra, Morison wowed us with ‘La Flute Enchantee’ and began to develop some of the magic and mystery of this short piece. ‘L’Indifferent’ showed nuances of world-weariness of a woman watching a young man walk by, apparently indifferent to her charms. I detected in the music shades of the Pavane pour un infante defunte and also –  albeit arranged later –  Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. A pleasant interlude.

 

If anyone’s symphonic career got off to a terrible start it was surely Rachmaninov, the more extraordinary considering how popular his works are today. Poorly played and conducted by a supposedly inebriated Glazunov it was a critical and popular disaster, so much so that the composer retired from composition for three years and returned only after hypnosis therapy, (and to great acclaim) with his second piano concerto.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony is clearly a nascent work and never published in his lifetime. “Bold as brass” is an appropriate description of the opening followed by the strings playing as if in marching order. Very little development of a melodic line, lots of noise not really going anywhere. The second movement was again striking but cannot be described as good music, although there was a definite promise of things to come by the time we came to the third and fourth – a lot of good stuff trying to get out. It is a courageous decision to programme this work (no faint praise intended): it is of considerable interest, and terrific if you like noise. The closing Tan Tam and Timpani were an audiophile’s delight! Well played throughout; one has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 October)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 7 Oct.‘18)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

“This work, [Britten’s String Quartet No 3] unknown to me, was the event of the evening”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

 

The Edinburgh Quartet, one of the country’s longest standing musical ensembles, has been through many changes, but perhaps none so great as in the three years past that I have been writing about them. Personnel changes, obviously, but changes in performance strategy as well. A move away from formal, evening concert giving to less formal lunchtime and afternoon recitals, working with makars and artists, educating, and, splendidly, offering internships to aspiring musicians to actually take a desk for a period of concerts with them. All this makes it difficult to achieve an enduring opinion of their actual playing together as a combo, and I have not written about them for almost a year.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Queen’s Hall featured only one member of more than a year or so’s standing, 10 year veteran cellist Mark Bailey. Tijmen Huisingh has taken over the 1st Violin desk after a year of guests; with Tom Hankey and Catherine Marwood on 2nd violin and viola respectively.

A further unusual aspect of the quartet’s branding is choosing a theme for each season. This year it is ‘Exile’. These themes in my view have always been a little contrived and in his chat after the Beethoven Tijmen Huisingh did confess that they had to be “broadly interpreted”. Exile from deafness in the case of Beethoven, homesickness form England in the case of American based Britten, and yearning for Bohemia from Dvorak whilst in America. Hmmn.

The programme notes were sparse but learned. Deep analysis of the works in question, but with no mention of the players or their biographies. Pleasingly, no advertisements. A puzzling frontispiece titled “Death in Venice” and a reference to phrases quoted in the final movement of the quartet to Britten’s opera. Helpfully, there is an attractive and up to date website to provide further information. 

The Quartet, continuing their very pleasing custom of not fine tuning on stage but getting right down to it, kicked off with an early Beethoven Quartet, Op.18 No 3, a competently despatched if not especially inspiring rendition of an unspectacular early work.

There followed Britten’s String Quartet No 3, a more mature, introspective work, to which the players brought everything they could, from the desolate duets at the beginning between first violin and cello, some breathtaking first violin playing in the highest positions with barely a couple of inches of metal to derive a sound from, lively ensemble playing in the Burlesque finishing with bold pizzicato leading to a sublime conclusion in the final La Serenissima. This work, unknown to me, was the event of the evening.

Tijmen Huisingh had explained earlier that they were unable to play the published Dvorak String Quartet in E flat major, no 10 op.51, through lack of practice owing to illness. Instead we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet no 14 op.105, played in previous recitals. A melancholy opening in the first movement Adagio non troppo – the work was started in America and completed in Bohemia –  it grew livelier and more entertaining as it progressed. In the second movement Molto Vivace – Trio we were obviously back in Bohemia, there was some rich tonal playing in the lento e molto cantabile and in particular masterful cello playing in the final Allegro non tanto as the Quartet showed their evident bonding notwithstanding a relatively recent coming together.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 October)

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EIFF: “Swimming With Men” (30 June ’18)

“Fun performances and sweet turns of narrative … Swimming With Men is a comedic success”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Imagine The Full Monty, in Speedos. That’s the long and short of Swimming With Men. But despite some predictable setups, Oliver Parker’s new film is charming, sweet, and genuinely quite funny, mostly due to a delightful-as-ever performance by Rob Brydon. It is not a rush-to-the-theatre type of film, but as a nice way to spend an hour and a half, it does not disappoint.

Brydon plays Eric Scott, a bit of a loser who finds himself out of step with his own life. His accounting job is a monotonous waste of his time and talent, and he is growing apart from his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) due to his own jealousy at her success as a local politician. The only place he finds peace is in the local pool, where he meets a motley crew of men who have banded together as a synchronized swimming team. Led by the charming Luke (Rupert Graves), the men decide to incorporate Eric into their routine, and so begins a series of amusing training sessions and actually quite impressive swimming stunt work. Played by various British comedy talents such as Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays, Thomas Turgoose, and the excellent Jim Carter, the team is a fun group to watch, and their onscreen chemistry is a highlight.

The story is a classic one, where Eric finds not only his own worth in his connection to these men, but the worth of self-expression and all that; credit again to Brydon that he makes this simplistic path far more pleasant than predictable. Charlotte Riley is notably fun as Susan, a swimmer who is drawn into being the team’s coach, and gets them good enough to complete in the international men’s championships in Milan for a rousing, very fun finale. The film is quite sweet, but not without its conflicts, as old habits, lost loves, and personal differences come to derail some of the team’s momentum over and over. But overall, this is an agreeable and satisfying film with something to say about male friendship and trust, which is very well suited to Brydon’s charm and talent as an Everyman with real presence. One scene of his in an elevator late in the film is a particular standout; perhaps it’s a shame he does not get more to do over the course of the film.

Parker’s aesthetic choices are unexceptional, yet liven up when the men are in and around the pool, a clever reflection of the freeing possibilities of the team and their routines. Some sequences are filmed quite creatively, especially the hypnotic boredom of Eric’s office and certain dreamlike shots of the men twirling and floating around underwater.

(Outside of the film itself, it is an intriguing coincidence that this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival featured a French film called Le grand bain [or Sink or Swim], directed by Gilles Lellouche and starring Mathieu Amalric, which seems to have the exact same plot. Perhaps synchronized men’s swimming has become the choice cinematic metaphor for rethinking the mechanics of team-based masculinities of today.)

For Brydon’s commendable turn in the lead role, plus some fun performances and sweet turns of the narrative, Swimming With Men is a comedic success, and well worth a rainy-day watch. (So, perfect for Scottish audiences.)

This enjoyable film brought the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival to a close, and my coverage ends with it. It has been a truly fun and informative time watching and waxing about all these films and seeing film history made-in-Edinburgh. I hope my writing has been useful and thank you for reading!

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Swimming with Men at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Hearts Beat Loud” (30 June ’18)

Credit: courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“A sweet, caring hug of a movie.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Baristas. Beard oil. Acoustic sessions. Obscure pastries. Brooklyn. Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud has no shortage of any of these. It is a sweet, caring hug of a movie. If you would like a nice time, and do not mind drowning in sweetness, you might enjoy it. If you find acoustic guitar soliloquies somewhat overrated, then you might want to spend your time some other way.

Haley’s film was supposedly crafted as a “response” to all the disgusting behavior coming out of the White House and other assorted American institutions — to his credit, the film bathes itself in the loveliest versions of American city life it can imagine, from an adorable record store to a biracial family to a deeply loving father-daughter dynamic to a healthy dose of LGBT positivity. These are all, don’t get me wrong, very good things, and especially in these times when calls for more diversity in the film world are met with pathetically backwards ignorance. Haley has done very well to color his film the way he has. Thankfully, Hearts Beat Loud does show more darkly realistic sides as well, for example: the record store, owned by father Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), is running out of money and time; Frank has had to raise his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) alone as his wife passed away in a bike accident years before; Sam is going to UCLA, on the other side of the country, which means her fledgling summer love is destined to come to an unfortunately early end. All these are solid plot points, yet despite them, the film just cannot quite graduate out of the sickly-sweet genre into genuine character drama at any point. 

The plot follows Frank as he decides he has to close his store, Red Hook Records, in order to pay for Sam’s college. In a cute attempt to cheer himself and his daughter up, Frank drags Sam to their “jam sesh” room, where Sam plays a few lines from a song she wrote earlier that day. They record the song with their inexplicably state-of-the-art home studio (this, from a man who later claims to ‘not have a penny’ to his name), and Frank covertly uploads it to Spotify. It becomes an overnight sensation, and although Sam would rather go to college than be in a band with her dad, Frank is torn whether they should try and go for success in the industry or continue living their local lives. 

Offerman and Clemons are the lifeblood of this film; without them it would truly have been an unremarkable experience. Offerman in particular taps into his talent for hilariously giddy facial expressions very well, and imbues Frank with serious charm and kindness. Clemons, after blowing us all away with her scene-stealing turn in Rick Famuyiwa’s mini-masterpiece Dope, is captivating as ever as Sam, particularly when she plays music and sings so darn well — mark my words, Clemons can seriously sing. Supporting them is a nice cast of characters with mostly nice performances; Blythe Danner is charming as Frank’s mischievous mother Marianne, Toni Collette and Ted Danson are fine as Frank’s adult friends, and Sasha Lane is alright but a little morose as Sam’s girlfriend Rose.

The hit song itself, titled, of course, “Hearts Beat Loud,” is a fun and catchy indie pop number that will probably get your toe tapping, and is genuinely well-written, but so like every other fun, catchy indie pop number that the effect is somewhat limited. Other than this track, however, the songs are either overwrought or twee as hell. One unintentionally funny scene comes when Frank tries to convince Sam they should play more music together by getting out his acoustic guitar and moaning out one of his old songs he wrote back in the day; the scene ends with Sam in tears at what a moving performance her father just gave, but, gosh, what a dull and unremarkable tune it was.

This is part of the issue with Hearts Beat Loud: it gives you nice feelings here and there, but a lot of the themes and plot beats are just not as ‘important’ as Haley seems to think they are. Take the way the script handles music itself: sure, artists like Mitski and Animal Collective are exceedingly talented musicians, but two scenes each featuring different characters describing how great they are is too much. Look at it this way: you know that feeling when someone describes a band to you that you don’t know all that well, and won’t stop telling you about them anyway? This film sounds like that, for 97 minutes. Couple that with an insufferable amount of Brooklyn-specific references and a pretty lame sense of humor, and that is the base of Hearts Beat Loud’s approach. (Side note: Haley seems to have inadvertently created a personification of what The Guardian called ‘The New Boring‘ – referring to perfectly harmless tunes and ‘beige pop’ tendencies that has taken over the music scene of the last few years – this is essentially the movie version.)

To be fair, there are moments that are compelling through and through. Offerman is on top form during the scene where he realizes the band has gone viral, the true comedic highlight of the film. The final performance has energy and style to spare. And yes, the central question of how Sam and Frank are going to handle their potential for transcendent music-making is quite interesting. (Although, it is a little insulting from time to time that the film seems to suggest Sam is considering not going to the medical school she has dreamed of since childhood to pursue playing indie pop with her dad instead … an infuriatingly stupid plot point that, if the film had ended a certain way, would have lowered this even farther in my regard.)

Overall, this is a forgettable film with some pleasant performances and a truly nice heart, for better or worse.

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

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