Archive for the Drama Category

Frank

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Frank photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgDomhnall Gleeson is Jon, a young wannabe keyboardist who manages to get recruited into an outré band called The Soronprfbs. The group is led by an enigmatic personality named Frank who wears a giant cartoon papier-mâché head that he never takes off. The gang includes Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a supremely negative individual who plays the theremin (natch), Nana their drummer (Carla Azar of experimental LA act Autolux), petulant lead guitarist Baraque (French actor François Civil) and their manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Despite having little to no talent whatsoever, Jon desperately craves mainstream success. Meanwhile the rest of the band appears to have less focused aspirations. His dream of appearing at Austin’s famed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is driven by his social media campaign via Twitter and YouTube.

The production captures the collaborative efforts of an unknown indie band with real authenticity. There’s a reason for this. The inspirations for Frank are actually more interesting than the film itself. The screenplay was written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, and was based on Ronson’s experiences playing in the new wave act Oh Blimey Big Band during the late 1980s. Their leader, Chris Sievey was an English musician and comedian. He succumbed to cancer in 2010. Sievey’s comic persona Frank Sidebottom included wearing a large spherical shaped head made of papier mâché and dressing in a retro styled suit from the 1950s. Beneath that veneer, the writers have fashioned a bizarre fictional group that also owes an obvious debt to the talents of avant-garde individuals like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Daniel Johnston.

Frank is a black comedy with a dark undercurrent. How dark? Well someone who has committed suicide by hanging himself from tree is presented as a visual joke. In another instance a man is suddenly hit by a car in a sonic surprise that virtually slaps the audience with a punctuated jolt. Frank is definitely an odd little film with a sensibility that will charm some and irk others. There are some amusing moments. Frank’s attempt at his most likable pop song is something called “Coca Cola, Lipstick, Ringo.” In the words of screenwriter Jon Ronson, it would be the result “if someone with manic depression tried to write a Katy Perry song.” The final ditty “I Love You All” is strangely affecting as well. Unfortunately those occurrences are few and far between. Most of the picture isn’t that funny or even particularly memorable. Frank isn’t a bad movie. There are some touching episodes amidst the bleak humor, but I’ll liken its appeal to food. Frank is a heaping plate of fava beans. There’s nothing wrong with fava beans. I just wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ll take a plate of broccoli instead.

08-23-14

What If

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

What If photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgCan men and women be “just friends“? That’s the age old question that What If address within its well worn story structure, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes infatuated with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party only to discover that she already has a boyfriend at the very end of their evening together. Chantry maintains she loves her current beau but would like to remain friends. Wallace agrees. Things don’t go as planned.

What If isn’t wholly generic but it isn’t particularly innovative either. Surprisingly, Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) isn’t made out to be a complete jerk. You could imagine the two of them getting married and living a happy life. Although Ben’s first interaction with Wallace is rude and it causes the audience to dislike Ben right from the start, despite his sincere devotion to Chantry. What If does indeed have moments of relaxed whimsy. Radcliffe and Kazan are charming up to a point and they generate enough chemistry to sustain interesting discussions. They share a scene in a diner and a conversation about a disgusting sandwich known as Fool’s Gold was something I had never heard before. More often than not, however, these offhand fragments feel like the carefully orchestrated fabrications of a writer. The twee stretches outweigh the periods of genuine honest emotion.

Chantry’s latent attraction becomes frustrating. In spite of her exhortations that she doesn’t want a romantic relationship, her actions speak otherwise. Upon their first meeting, Chantry flirts conspicuously with Wallace at the party. It’s shocking when she abruptly reveals she is already spoken for when he drops her off. They spent an entire evening together. She couldn’t mention this earlier? Their accidental meeting at a revival showing of The Princess Bride is another mixed signal flirtatious conversation as well. Chantry is a complex woman and she remains a compelling individual, but her behavior develops into this cat-and-mouse game where she seems to express an attraction towards Wallace, then gets indignant when he responds. Then there is her exceptionally bizarre reaction late in the narrative. Her amorous feelings prompts a grand declaration of love from him. Her subsequent response renders her character a most confounding object of befuddlement.

What If is all about when men and women enter the “friend” zone. The picture frequently recalls the far superior When Harry Met Sally both in subject matter and alliances. Wallace and Chantry embark on a platonic relationship. She opens up to her sister Dalia (Megan Park) for advice. He confides in his buddy Allan (Adam Driver). Allan also happens to be Chantry’s cousin. More quirkiness. The production was originally titled The F Word when it was released at the 2013 Toronto film festival in September. That the filmmakers ditched that significantly more zesty title for a humdrum one, actually belies the movie’s true heart. What If is pleasant enough but the slightness of the story ultimately relegates this affair to little more than passable time filler.

08-17-14

Calvary

Posted in Drama on August 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Calvary photo starrating-2stars.jpgBrendan Gleeson is Father James Lavelle, a pastor of a church in County Sligo on Ireland’s Northwest coast. The province is in an outlying area, an environment full of natural beauty that is a facade that hides an ugly sinister heartbeat of assorted sinners and delinquents. The tale begins as he hears the confession of a man. The confessor vows to murder Lavelle in one week’s time because of abuses he suffered when he was a boy at the hands of a completely different priest. The congregant’s rationale is that it would be a more powerful statement to kill a good priest, on a Sunday no less. The movie then introduces us to the various weirdos of his congregation, apparently so we the audience can play, “Guess the culprit.”

Why are there so many misanthropes in this picturesque little Irish town? There’s the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke). She cheats with the approval of her married husband (Chris O’Dowd), a butcher. He is indifferent to his wife’s persistent adultery with an abusive mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé) from the Ivory Coast who thinks women want to be slapped around every now and then. There’s also the rapist murderer (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s actual son) who felt like God when he was killing, an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) with a wicked temperament, an ineffectual young man (Killian Scott) who hates women for not paying attention to him, a flamboyant gay hustler (Owen Sharpe) whose affectations come across like a reject from a failed production of Grease, and a snotty rich man (Dylan Moran) who urinates on an priceless work of art to demonstrate his contempt for life. Let’s not forget his fellow clergyman (David Wilmot), a passionless assistant who seems more like an insurance salesman than a man moved by religious conviction. Lastly there’s the aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) that just wants to commit suicide. You will too after being surrounded by this sorry lot.

So how does a priest spend what might possibly be the very last week of his life? By keeping mum on the threat to his existence and sublimating himself in the mire of his own congregation. Brendan Gleeson is a conscientious man of the cloth with his heart in the right place. He’s mostly a positive portrayal of a Catholic father in an age where that is an original concept. In contrast, writer/director John Michael McDonagh surrounds Brendan Gleeson with a coterie of oddballs and miscreants. A circus freak show would look like the picture of normality when compared to this parish. It’s very self consciously arty. The one actually nice person in this whole depressing production is actress Kelly Reilly who plays Lavelle’s daughter. He was once married and entered the priesthood following the death of his wife. She provides a bit of a respite from the miserableness. Along the way we endure situations brought down by dialogue that challenges the very nature of what it means to produce an engaging drama. The ending is one last expression of disregard for an audience that has endured a narrative that ultimately goes nowhere. Calvary is the hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. And that’s a pretty good description of how I felt after this film was over.

08-13-14

The Hundred-Foot Journey

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on August 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hundred-Foot Journey photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDirector Lasse Hallström has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for light romantic dramas that aim to please a mass audience. His Chocolat is a particularly relevant example as it closely resembles his latest work. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a comfy well worn mélange made of simple ingredients.  An Indian family new to France is currently looking for a place to live. They had a restaurant in Mumbai but on election night it was set on fire, killing their mother in the ensuing fracas. The remaining clan escapes those horrible conditions for Europe. After a series of failed starts the group is driving through the French countryside. All of sudden their van conveniently breaks down in the picturesque little village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. They meet Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a young local woman who’s stunning and the same age as their middle son Hassan (Manish Dayal) who also happens to be handsome. She takes them to her place and provides a bountiful meal full of locally grown fruits and vegetables all lovingly captured in colorful detail. In the morning, after the van has been repaired, Papa (Om Puri) discovers an old abandoned restaurant and decides to buy it. Wouldn’t you know, it’s right across the street from Le Saule Pleureur – Madame Mallory‘s (Helen Mirren) highly acclaimed Michelin star restaurant. More coincidence.

The actors go a long way into making the trite anecdotes seem a lot more weighty. Helen Mirren plays the snooty Madame Mallory. She starts out as a tough-as-nails disciplinarian. Naturally she’s really just a lovable old softie deep down, which should surprise absolutely no one watching this. Strict patriarch (Om Puri) opens up his Indian restaurant Maison Mumbai on the other side of the road. The 100-feet refers to the distance between the two establishments, This prompts a war of one-upmanship. Cue the inevitable culture clash as it’s France vs. India. Puri is an accomplished actor that holds his own in every scene with the equally talented but more critically applauded Mirren. The two of them are an MVP team of brilliant actors schooling the rest of the cast. They make this material seem fresh. I found their interaction to be rather amusing. For three-fourths of the movie the screenplay mines a familiar rhythm that is comforting. The final quarter devolves into a rushed, overly plotted narrative that goes off in a bizarre direction as our protagonist Hassan finds success. It almost looks like the story will go off the rails but then it suddenly gets steered back on course. The drama ultimately ends exactly like you always expected everything to turn out. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should fault the film for remaining totally predicable or applaud it for being consistent. I guess I’ll go with the second choice.

Anyone who has ever seen a romantic drama will know precisely how this will all play out. The Hundred-Foot Journey is deliberately calculated, button pushing entertainment as manipulative as they come. The thing is, it’s very well done. It’s highlighted by seductive cinematography. The performances are engaging. So you have to ask yourself, am I going to fight this script because it appeals to the lowest common sentimental denominator or shall I sit back, relax and simply enjoy the beautifully photographed ride? I choose the latter.  The production is a pleasant diversion, but it exploits every emotional beat that you expect. Destiny, serendipity and happenstance are the ingredients in a recipe that dictates the storyline. It’s all very precious. There are no surprises or innovation and yet the contrivance goes down rather smoothly. The confection is sweet, akin to a custard filled pastry liberally sprinkled with a lot of sugar and no nutritional value. Its appeal relies on very obvious charms. Let’s just say that I enjoyed the film, but kind of embarrassed to admit that I did.

08-10-14

Get on Up

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Get on Up photo starrating-3stars.jpg1988 – A man in a green tracksuit arrives at a strip mall that he owns. He realizes someone has been using the bathroom without his permission. With shotgun in hand he enters a room and points it at the small gathering of people demanding to know the guilty culprit. He accidentally fires a shot in the ceiling amidst shrieks of the people now cowering on the floor, frightened out of their minds.  Police sirens are heard approaching in the distance. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is that man.

The practice of digitally encoding music and reusing it as part of another song is common practice today. They claim that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. In that vein, director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us haphazard excerpts of a life. These vignettes are selected from different years at various intervals as if chosen from a buffet of life experiences. A detailed handling of the life of James Brown would be a formidable enterprise no doubt given the amount of material the man’s life would entail. Perhaps the filmmakers realized the task of accurately recounting the biography of a man with a long and complicated life would be too daunting. Nevertheless the disregard for chronology is odd. Get On Up is a biographical drama about the life of James Brown, where telling a traditional chronological tale is rejected in favor of emotional touchstones grouped by feeling.

As a result, the saga never has a chance to build momentum. We start near the end where James Brown is already a legend in his own lifetime. People are chanting his name as he walks down a concert hall. As he reflects upon his life, we get the aforementioned run-in with the law. We see a sketch during the 60s where he’s nearly shot down, right before he’s entertaining the troops in Vietnam. 1939 – He’s a little boy running in the woods of South Carolina with his mother, Then he’s performing at a gig in 1964 with his singing group The Famous Flames preceding The Rolling Stones. Jill Scott plays Dee-Dee Jenkins, James Brown’s second wife. One minute they’re handing out gifts as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The next he’s beating her within an inch of her life. Before we can process what‘s happening, the narrative has moved on to another year. Flashback and flash forward. Back and forth, all over the place.

The technique becomes particularly frustrating on the occasion where James is celebrating in his dressing room at the Apollo theater after a show. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years, walks in smiling. The power of that scene dissipates as it abruptly ends right there and we skim a myriad of other time periods instead, detailing different relationships with assorted women. All the while an alert viewer is wondering what exactly was the outcome of that fateful reunion of James Brown and his mother. We finally get the answer but it’s over 30 minutes later. In the interim, we come to realize how James Brown could be an effective mediator. A concert at The Boston Garden following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is nearly cancelled for fear of riots. In an effort to diffuse a situation that has an excitable police presence on edge, he appeals to the crowd for order. James calms an excitable crowd whose dancing members keep getting up on stage. It’s a powerful moment.

One thing is for sure. Get on Up is highlighted by some great acting. Let’s start with the supporting parts. Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Viola Davis as his mother, and Octavia Spencer as the Aunt who raised him – they’re all memorable. But none more so than actor Nelsan Ellis (TV’s True Blood) who matches Chadwick Boseman’s work for unadulterated emotional heft. While in prison, James Brown met the man that would change his life, Bobby Byrd. Wives and band members would come and go but his long suffering sidekick stood by his side through the best and worst times of his life. As one of the most moving relationships in James Brown career, it’s a poignant performance that lingers after the music has faded.

Chadwick Boseman is impressive as James Brown. He fully embodies the man in vocal inflections, attitude and behavior. Boseman gets James’ signature raspy voice spot on, extending beyond mere mimicry. And when James sings! The musical performances are the best part. All of his hits are here including “Get Up Offa That Thing”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1″, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The presentation relies on lip synching to actual James Brown tracks and personally I’m glad that decision was made. The singer’s idiosyncratic musical style would have been extremely difficult to duplicate. Chadwick Boseman gets the electricity of James’ delivery down pat, complete with the dancing, the splits and the sheer athleticism. People in my theater actually got up and danced. I’ve never seen that happen. Get on Up isn’t a deep film. It samples from the highlights of a very intricate life with a slapdash approach. I suppose the disjointed sampling is appropriate in an ironic way. It’s how his music is often manipulated today. However, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatically affecting story arc, just a well acted one.  Chadwick Boseman is indeed an actor to watch.

08-03-14

A Most Wanted Man

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Most Wanted Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgA Most Wanted Man is a dense, elaborate adaptation of the 2008 John le Carré espionage novel of the same name. The particularly timely subject matter concerns The War on Terror but the film will probably be best remembered as the final starring screen role of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not surprisingly he turns in another stellar performance. He is truly missed.

As in all John le Carré novels everyone has an important part in the wide-ranging chronicle. The real focus of our tale is one Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who seeks asylum in Germany after he is half beaten to death. As the son of a notorious Muslim terrorist he is heir to his father‘s wealth. The authorities have labeled him a militant jihadist as well. However his true allegiances are still a bit of an enigma. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann a German counterterrorist expert based in Hamburg. He heads up a secret intelligence team working within the Islamic community to stop radical organizations. He’s a hard drinking, unkempt sort, disheartened by his life experiences. Yet he remains an intelligent man guided by principle. He is still willing to pause and see the big picture first before rushing in to act. Rachel McAdams is Annabel Richter, a young German human rights attorney. She’s an altruistic type fighting in the interest of the downtrodden. Nonetheless, in Bachmann’s eyes she’s a social worker for terrorists. Also a foil to Bachman is corrupt British banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) whose bank holds the fortune of Karpov’s father. Brue forms an association with Annabel and these two comprise a coalition of sorts with Karpov.

There are no good guys in A Most Wanted Man. There are decent people, yes, but they’re caught up in a maze of moral ambiguities that can compromise their ethics. It’s a dreary but well acted critique concerning a global military campaign in a post 9/11 world. The saga is highlighted by a plethora of memorable characters beautifully rendered with studious care as layered personalities. Like a chess game you never know what one person’s next move will be. The sympathetic becomes insensitive, the heartless becomes merciful. Everything comes to head when the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge in a climax that literally involves a man initialing papers at a desk. Of course the issue being addressed is deeper than that, but like most John le Carré stories, the narrative remains emotionally cold and the milieu is bleak. It succeeds despite an overworked set up that somewhat wanes in the middle. For a movie that runs over two hours, not a whole lot happens to be quite honest. At times it’s an indictment of bureaucratic incompetence. Nevertheless this carefully modulated character study ultimately ends on a powerful note.

07-30-14

Boyhood

Posted in Drama with tags on July 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Boyhood photo starrating-5stars.jpgRichard Linklater’s sprawling 2 hour and 45 minute magnum opus details 12 years in the life of a family, and principally that of a young male lead, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six year old boy when our drama begins. Mason is like many juveniles. He happens to live in Texas in a typical town like many others. He has a sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) who is older by one year and a Mom played by Patricia Arquette. Olivia is a divorced single parent. A struggling working class woman, Olivia is raising her children the best way she knows how. We see Mom’s choices revolve around her family at the expense of being able to go out and have fun. Mason does have an absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). He doesn’t appear right away but then shows up rather unexpectedly one day to take the kids bowling. Once he is introduced to the audience, his presence becomes a bit more familiar. Given the narrative breadth, Boyhood could have just as easily been called Motherhood, Fatherhood or simply Childhood.

As the story progresses, the principals grow older. In most movies this would involve casting different people to represent the kids at various stages as they got older. Makeup would probably be used to age the adults. Instead, Boyhood was actually filmed over the course of 12 years so as the characters mature, so do the actors. It’s a fascinating development that infuses the tale with an allure not found in the way a traditional picture is shot over a few months. Richard Linklater not only utilizes the appearance of his performers to inform the passage of time, but also little cultural touchstones in each era. These present the minutiae that makes up our everyday lives. Mason ogles the women in the underwear section of a department store catalogue, is annoyed by his sister’s rendition of “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, and attends a book release party for the latest Harry Potter novel. These non-events are what compose a life. Individually they mean very little, but added together they represent the sum total of an existence.

Boyhood has an astounding level of characterization. The depiction of the four principals is deceptively simple. Yet it isn’t until after you contemplate the full scope of the chronicle that you fully comprehend the complexity of the portrait. The production was shot over 39 days beginning in the summer of 2002 and completed in October 2013. Mason gets taller, his voice deepens. His personality matures before our very eyes. But even more than the physical changes is the emotional evolution of a life. Linklater isn’t content to merely gives us Mason’s reality. Mom Olivia has a compelling dramatic arc as well. Incidentally, Patricia Arquette is extraordinary. This is the single greatest performance of her career. She registers fear, pain, sorrow and joy with absolute veracity. At different points, her depiction details two marriages to men of questionable character. A scene where her husband Bill interrogates the kids about their mother’s whereabouts is chilling but it gets increasingly intense when he starts checking their cell phones for calling history. Conversely there are moments that are quite moving as well. An offhand comment by Olivia to a handyman replacing their home’s water pipes will have major repercussions later. All of these vignettes immediately make an impression but they must meditate in the mind well after the saga is over. The drama advances organically and the actors perform naturally. Rarely has an individual’s developmental transitions been dramatized so imaginatively on film. Boyhood is an outstanding achievement and a magnificent paean to the simple brilliance of the human experience.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

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