Monday, February 16, 2015

Begin Again: Light and Fun and not Once.

Movie Review: Begin Again

Director: John Carney

Reviewed: 16 February 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

John Carney, the director of Once, tries again to catch lightning in a bottle with a dramatic story between two musical lead characters juxtaposed against the creation of some bona fide songs. Where it worked in Once to dizzying, intoxicating effect, here in Begin Again it seems forced and contrived, showing the strings without the former film's effervescent charm.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta, thrown over song writer from across the pond, visiting New York City with burgeoning rock star Dave (Adam Levine), who finds herself onstage at an open mic at a small bar one night, and her tune catches the imagination of disheveled and nearly disgraced album producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Dan hears both what is there and what is not there, supplying the supplemental strings and drums with his mind, leading into an altogether strange scene of Gretta singing and Dan's visions of the instruments behind her playing themselves. Carney stages the opening quite inventively with the audience seeing the moment of connection and then flashing backwards through both characters to see what led them to this place and time. In a rut professionally and personally, Dan sees Gretta as a way to return to greatness, and in order to convince former partner Saul (Mos Def), he convinces Gretta to record an album on the fly around the city over the course of the summer. He also figures out a way to involve his strained relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). The film's got rejuvenation on its mind (see the title).

Now, the impulse for this suggestion of making her first album this way, an important one that is crucial to the plot and her buying into Dan as legitimate, just happens, and I suppose that's where we are just supposed to trust Dan instead of wondering why he saved an idea like that for someone he barely knows. To his credit, Dan arranges a makeshift back-up band to play behind Gretta, and locales from the tops of tall buildings to noisy alleyways are used as music studios for these songs. And the songs are fine, if instantly forgettable, and again, if Carney had not set the bar so high with Once, with its Academy Award winning lead song, that would not be as much of a problem. But, here, I think the songs are fine but never great, despite one earning an Academy Award nomination.

Everyone is doing fine work here, with two lead performances that are fine, but I found myself often more interested in the supporting players (James Corden excels as an old mate from England; Cee Lo Green is quite funny as a living legend and deus ex machina) than its simplistic industry politics. Who needs recording studios? Who needs the current release and pay structure set by music executives in the age of twitter? The film has some challenging ideas and adds in its coda a burst of internet savvy suggestive of a bolder film. The film skirts the darkness of Dan's alcoholism and his quiet conquering of it. It is a shame to cast an actress of Catherine Keener's caliber and then give her character little to do, and sometimes I felt like Ruffalo's character has a vague idea of producing that consists of dancing wildly and grooving into the faces of the band members.

Ultimately, I feel like the film is harmless and a bit fun, with a mostly understated chemistry between the two leads, thankfully, that never takes over the film. There's some fun here, as I said, and it is probably worth a look. But mostly it makes me want to re-watch Once.

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