United by music, divided by ideology

Brothers Ilmar Gavilan (left) and Aldo Lopez-Gavilan play together after years of separation in Los Hermanos. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian)

By Richard Ades

Music. Politics. Brotherly love. These three forces collide in Los Hermanos (The Brothers), a bittersweet documentary about siblings separated by 90 miles of ocean and 50 years of economic policy.

Ilmar Gavilan and younger brother Aldo Lopez-Gavilan were born into a musical Cuban family. As boys, both were encouraged to develop the talents they so obviously inherited from their parents, but rather than bringing them together, this shared interest soon tore them apart.

Aldo, a budding pianist and composer, was only 8 when 14-year-old Ilmar set off to Moscow to hone his skills as a violinist. Eventually settling in the United States (the documentary doesn’t explain how this came about), Ilmar was free to perform with just about anyone except the brother he left back in Cuba. Due to U.S. trade embargoes and travel restrictions against the communist society, collaborations between the two were nearly impossible.

The documentary, fluidly directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, draws a stark contrast between the brothers’ lifestyles. While Ilmar plays and tours with a chamber group called the Harlem Quartet, Aldo deals with the limitations of making music in a poor and isolated country. In all of Cuba, we learn, there are only two or three performance spaces with decent pianos. And when Aldo does play in a concert, he often is responsible for prep work that anywhere else would be handled by backstage technicians.

One thing is clear. Despite the differences in their daily lives, the brothers are alike in their devotion to their chosen art form. Ilmar is a gifted violinist, while Aldo’s keyboard virtuosity, particularly when he’s playing one of his own rhythmically complex pieces at breakneck speed, marks him as a musical genius.

For this reason, as well as their family ties, the brothers desperately want to play and record an album together. When Ilmar succeeds in visiting his homeland for the first time in years, it looks like this just might happen. But it’s not until Barack Obama becomes president and relaxes trade and travel restrictions against the island that they’re completely free to share their talents.

They even arrange a joint tour of American concert halls, as documented in the film’s most joyful moments. However, joy turns to dread when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump begins appearing on TV screens and threatens to reverse Obama’s conciliatory policies toward Cuba.

As concerned as Los Hermanos is with politics and brotherhood, it’s really the music that ties the film together and constitutes its greatest strength. Specifically, it’s the music of Aldo, which makes up the bulk of what we hear throughout. Whether fast, jazzy and avant-garde or slow, simple and heartfelt, it never fails to impress and delight.

It’s the music, if one reads between the lines, that also makes the film’s most salient political point. We realize that the U.S., by cutting itself off from that island to the south, is not only depriving two brothers of each other’s company—it’s also depriving us of the enjoyment we could be getting from extraordinary Cuban talents like Aldo Lopez Gavilan.  

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Los Hermanos will be available in theaters and via virtual screenings beginning May 14. For ticket information, visit hermanosbrothersfilm.info/screenings.

War-traumatized Marine seeks healing on the road

Iraq War combat veteran Jonathan Hancock walks across America in Bastards’ Road.

By Richard Ades

Jonathan Hancock can’t stop replaying a horrifying moment from his service in the Iraq War: After firing a grenade toward an enemy position, the Marine watches helplessly as a child runs onto the scene just in time to be blown up.

This slow-motion memory is one of many that torment Hancock as he undertakes a 5,800-mile journey in the documentary Bastards’ Road. Also on his mind are the many comrades he lost during the war, and the many more who were lost after their tours of duty due to PTSD and suicide.

It’s partly to prevent more losses—and partly to deal with his own internal demons—that Hancock decides to set off the morning of Sept. 11, 2015. Strapping on a backpack adorned with a Marine banner, he leaves his home in Maryland and begins walking. His plan is to take a roundabout cross-country route that reunites him with fellow comrades who survived the war, as well as the families of those who didn’t.  

Directed and edited by Brian Morrison, the documentary takes its title from the nickname of Hancock’s Marine unit: “The Magnificent Bastards.” Visually, the film is a beautiful travelogue that includes some of America’s most striking vistas. Psychologically, it’s a revealing dissection of the lasting trauma that war can create in those who fight it.

At times, the two sides of the film’s personality don’t quite gel, especially when soothing ballads are heard during Hancock’s wanderings. They seem out of place because we know they don’t reflect his state of mind.

More convincing are the comments Hancock and others make about the changes war can create in a human being’s psyche: Battle takes away one’s belief that everyone is basically OK. It forces one to adopt behavior that would be inappropriate in ordinary life—and that must be abandoned if one survives and returns to that life. And it forces one to face the deaths of those who don’t survive. “We didn’t know how to deal with that,” Hancock says.

A recurrent theme of Bastards’ Road is the importance of veterans’ admitting when they need help. Due to macho pride—or to shame over their inability to get on with their lives as some of their comrades seem to have done—many don’t seek that help. Instead, they turn to drugs, alcohol or worse. One result, the film states, is that the suicide rate among veterans is 50 percent higher than it is among the general population.

To counteract this disturbing trend, Hancock meets with as many former comrades as he can during his journey. Together, they commiserate over what they went through in Iraq and encourage each other to get counseling if they need it.  

Coincidentally, just two days after watching Bastards’ Road, I caught a 60 Minutes report on the “Ritchie Boys,” a secret U.S. military unit formed during World War II. The unit included many German Jews who had fled to America and were eager to use their knowledge and language skills to help defeat the Nazis. What struck me the most about the interviewed veterans was the pride these elderly men took in their long-ago war efforts.

That set me to thinking. Though PTSD obviously has been around since warfare was invented, it must be at least a little easier to recover from serving in a just and universally supported cause like WWII than it is to recover from serving in an ill-conceived and widely condemned conflict like the Iraq War. But that’s a question that Bastards’ Road never takes up.

Ignoring the politics of the situation, it instead focuses on the psychological damage the war did to those who fought it. In the process, it offers new insights to those who weren’t there and, hopefully, a bit of healing to those who were.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Bastards’ Road is available via VOD/digital platforms and DVD beginning May 11.

Walken stars as Monsanto-fighting canola farmer

Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken) is in no mood to be pushed around in Percy vs. Goliath.

By Richard Ades

When a Canadian farmer takes on the chemical giant Monsanto in Percy vs. Goliath, the result is similar to what happens when an American farmer takes on DuPont in 2019’s Dark Waters: Determined to protect its profits, the corporation threatens the farmer with ruin by dragging him through endless court battles.

The films are also similar in another respect: Both are earnest but sometimes preachy efforts that score more points politically than they do dramatically.

The new flick does have one big advantage over its predecessor in that it stars Christopher Walken as heroic Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Even playing a mild-mannered character whose chief attribute is stoicism, Walken supplies enough edge and mystery to add a smidgeon of unpredictability to a tale that otherwise offers few surprises.   

Percy, 73, has spent his life farming the land and using the agricultural techniques he inherited from his ancestors. “I’m a seed saver,” he explains, meaning he collects the seeds from each year’s crop and replants the ones that gave him the best yields. That makes it doubly surprising when Monsanto hits him with the claim that he’s been using its genetically modified canola seeds without paying for them.

Convinced he’s been unjustly accused, Percy turns to local lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff), who advises him to pay the demanded fine rather than risk a much bigger loss by forcing Monsanto to take him to court. When Percy refuses to back down, he ends up getting himself in more trouble than he could have anticipated. In the process, he gains the attention and support of activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci), who represents a nonprofit group that opposes Monsanto’s attempt to monopolize the international market with its expensive GMO products.

Screenwriters Garfield L. Miller and Hilary Pryor adapted the tale from an actual court case that happened around the turn of the millennium. Directed by Clark Johnson, it’s brought to the screen with cinematography (by Luc Monpellier) that’s sometimes more dramatic than the action. Besides being relentlessly low-key, the film undercuts itself with characters whose behavior occasionally seems inconsistent.

Percy is said to be shy, but he throws himself into a public speaking tour in an effort to publicize his case. Similarly, Jackson downplays his legal ability, but he argues cases like a Canadian Perry Mason.

Then there’s Rebecca, who mostly comes across as selfless and dedicated but at one point turns ruthless and manipulative. And Percy’s wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) can’t seem to decide whether she supports her husband’s crusade or opposes it because of all the grief it’s brought the family.

None of these inconsistencies is impossible to believe. The problem is that the actors aren’t given enough opportunity to smooth out the transitions.

The film also makes other strange choices, such as when it leaves out the climactic moment in Percy’s first legal go-round with Monsanto. Instead, Percy and his lawyer simply review the development after the fact.

Percy vs. Goliath deserves credit for exploring a controversial issue that affects farmers not only in North America but worldwide. It falters only by failing to deliver its history lesson with all the drama it deserves.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Percy vs. Goliath (PG-13) is available in theaters and from VOD outlets beginning April 30.