"Nowhere Boy," "Tibet in Song"
A Great Man biography gone comically wrong. If you didn't know that the teenage wiseacre at the center of "Nowhere Boy" would grow up to be John Lennon, there would be no reason to care about this naïve and cloying biopic. There's not much reason even if you do know.
The movie is an overdramatic tale of woe, though it's faithful to the facts of Lennon's unsettled early life. Aaron Johnson ("Kick-Ass") plays young Lennon as an insubordinate schoolboy who uses music to win the love he was denied at home. Kristin Scott-Thomas is all snippy sarcasm and overprotective prohibitions as his auntie Mimi, who raises the boy after his mother vanished from his life. She provides a stifling sort of stability, but young John, wasting away in sex-starved Liverpool, yearns for love on a pop idol level.
When he discovers that his long lost mum is living just streets away, he summons up the courage to meet her. Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who is -- let's put this delicately -- something of a flirt, welcomes him with open arms and their relationship blossoms into a queasy, sensual puppy love. "You're my dream!" she trills. Julia encourages his love of music and writing, teaching him the banjo and telling him he can be better than Elvis: He can be John Lennon. Tensions mount as the relationship between John and his two mother figures becomes a Freudian triangle.
When kitchen sink melodrama isn't expertly played and directed it becomes just stupid. The performances are overstressed and unconvincing. Duff practically consumes Johnson with her eyes, Scott-Thomas frowns until her brow resembles a plowed field, and Johnson delivers an imitation rather than a performance. Sam Taylor-Wood's direction is so clumsy that a sudden tragedy plays like a Monty Python gag. It's all so goopy you want to shower afterward.
Tibetan resistance to Chinese oppression has become a category all its own in the documentary world. Now comes "Tibet in Song," which gives new meaning to the concept of protest music.
Director Ngawang Choephel was born in Tibet but lived in exile since age 2, when his mother fled the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, his passion for the music and dance of his ancestors led him to travel to Tibet to record it. He returned to Tibet in 1995 to shoot his documentary. He was on a race against time. After the Chinese invasion of the 1950s, drowning out native traditions became a priority. The difficulties Choephel encountered on his mission are a harrowing demonstration of the perils of nonfiction filmmaking under authoritarian rule.
Folk music is a large part of daily life in Tibet; farm animals give more milk when their owners sing to them, one dairyman tells us. The film details how Chinese authorities tried to co-opt Tibetan music, substituting Maoist propaganda for the original lyrics, and blaring propaganda messages from loudspeakers installed in every village. Choephel's film is a testament to the perseverance of the Tibetan people, and to his own.