Friday, April 20, 2012

Choice of music--classic vs. popular--fuels David Grubin's new DOWNTOWN EXPRESS

Philippe Quint fans can kvell -- Nellie McKay's maybe not so much -- at the new narrative film in which both musicians star, DOWNTOWN EXPRESS, co-written (with Kathleen Cahill) and directed by the mostly documentary movie-maker David Grubin. Mr. Quint, looking dark and delicious, plays up a storm on his violin while acting up at least a heavy wind as his immigrant character Sasha struggles mightily with choosing between a career playing classical music and something more popular. The latter is demonstrated by the soft rock group of the movie title, fronted by a young lady named Ramona (brought to but meager life by Ms McKay, who's been given not much help by her screenwriters).

This proved TrustMovies' first time seeing and hearing either of these two popular performers, so I had no preconceived notions to overcome. While I found Quint relatively captivating, McKay seemed simply uncomfortable. The screen story has it that Ramona's been hurt by a former lover, which will have to account for her general unpleasantness. (Is the character -- or performer -- just overly shy, one wonders?) Still, you'd think the filmmaker, shown at right, would have found a few more specifics that Ms McKay could have grabbed and run with. As the movie rolls along, her character does grow happier, but we're not in on the "why." One scene, she's dour, the next she's smiling. Well, OK: It must be that Sasha's here!

Sasha (Quint, above) turns out to be a wildly talented violinist who plays in subways with his dad, brother and another immigrant, as the "Uneque" Quartet. Surely by now, some fan who put money into their basket would have also informed them of the word's proper spelling. But that should be the movie's worst offense against credibility. Wouldn't the family speak Russian when alone, rather than the heavily faux-accented English we hear? After all, audiences for this kind of small, independent film have long been known to read subtitles. In any case, one day, at an audition for prime subway playing space, Sasha sees and hears Ramona (McKay, below) and her group, and cupid's arrow is let loose.

The interplay of these two is barely there, but fortunately the movie has a couple of aces up its sleeve: Sasha's dad, brought to grand life by New York/London stage actor Michael Cumpsty (shown below, center right) and Sasha's Julliard teacher who has some excellent connections, and, as played by Carolyn McCormick (below, center left), gooses the movie to life whenever she appears. Once she and Cumpsty get their own relationship going, it's bye-bye to any further interest in our supposed stars. Without meaning to and much to our delight, these two pros -- utterly specific and full of energy -- hijack the movie.

The music heard on the sound track, particularly that of Quint and his group, is pretty damn good; McKay's less so. It was especially unwise, I think, to introduce her and her group with a song -- Ain't No Train -- that proves the best, and by a long shot, of any we hear after that. We keep waiting for something really good again, and it's not forthcoming (until the end credits, when we hear Ain't No Train once again).

Even the suspense that the movie tries to set up fails because, almost at the outset of the film, we hear Sasha tell us, "Now I play at Carnegie Hall, but back then everything was possible." Talk about spoilers. Downtown Express, 90 minutes long and unrated (but there's nothing much here that would harm young kids), opens today, Friday, April 20, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. (If I hear of other scheduled playdates, I'll post a link -- or list 'em....)

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