Movie Review: “Begin Again” (John Carney, USA 2013)

One thing I should get out of the way immediately: This is a music movie, and I absolutely detested the music. It’s everything I hate–vapid, radio-friendly wuss-pop filled with “delicate” piano lines, far too many people singing in falsetto, and horrible over-loud simplistic drums. The best part of the music was the dirty, feedback-filled mess of a guitar that Violet played in “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” and that wasn’t even very good. I have a broader musical palate than most, but this type of intentionally inoffensive music-for-the-masses generally horrifies me, and the work in this film was no exception. With the exception of Adam Levine, the singing was all competent if lacking in any real character (well, except for the brief moments James Corden got to sing–he had character), but the lone professional singer in the main cast sounded an absolute mess and made everything he sang even worse for it. Also, I swear every song in the film was 90% the same. All that said, I am by no means a musical expert–I may technically be a musician for having played guitar for the last 14 years, but I’m an exceptionally poor one–so the music may be far better technically than my subjective opinion suggests.

Begin Again is a journey through the creation of a debut album from a young songwriter (Gretta, played by Keira Knightley) who is forced into performance by heartache and an old veteran studio exec (Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo) forced into producing by his professional failures. Along the way, Dan’s experienced cynicism helps Gretta to find her voice both as a musician and especially as a single person while Gretta’s joie de vivre and willingness to eschew material wealth helps Dan to fix his broken family.

It’s a bit of an unusual love story in that the central couple is never actually a romantic pairing–while Dan and Gretta repeatedly stare at each other in clear moments of deep, loving emotion for one another, they never actually get together. However, it still manages to follow many of the tropes of a love story, even including yet another attempt to repeat the falling in love by the river sequence from Manhattan (Woody Allen, USA 1979), something seemingly every film including any romance in the last 35 years has included and few have done with any success. Each member of the couple has a specific type of damage that the other partner is uniquely qualified to fix, each member swears off love before meeting the other, etc.

The film’s unwillingness to take its premise in any non-troped directions renders it so predictable that it grows stale within the first 20 minutes and that staleness never lets up. It’s a shame for a film that begins with a premise that had the promise of adding an interesting twist to a tired love story formula.

Further, the film has absolutely no point to make. The closest I can come to a defining point is that music is revealing about people’s inner feelings, as most powerfully exemplified by the terrible, overproduced performance of “Lost Stars” that Gretta’s ex-boyfriend Dave records and then scales back nowhere near far enough for a live performance that is supposedly for Gretta. However, then much of the film is rendered pointless. The falling in love through the splitter scene becomes the entire film, and the rest of it exists only for the purpose of allowing that scene to play out when it didn’t even need any context.

Then, to top it all off, the film has a completely ridiculous ending wherein Gretta and Dan, without speaking to the label that employs him and has just signed her, decide to release the album in its entirety online for $1. Dan comments that he will be officially “going to war with” the music industry, but all I could think of was Amanda Palmer’s store including every song she has ever recorded for whatever price one wants to pay, even if what s/he wants to pay nothing. It may be fair to say that AFP is always at war with the music industry, but the fact that she’s able to survive doing that suggests that putting out the album digitally for $1 would not be the type of revolutionary move that the film thinks it is.

And yet, the film is not without its saving graces–Gretta, Dan, and Dave are all very well-drawn characters with some real depth and subtlety that grows as the film plays and (not coincidentally) some of the acting is excellent.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo serve as the film’s stars and are a tale of two performances, the latter in a far more complex, deeper role than the former. Ruffalo’s Dan is a tortured but well-intentioned old music pro who desperately needs exactly the kind of help he can get from Gretta. Knightley, meanwhile, has a habit of smiling inappropriately and rarely seems to look like the emotion we hear that Gretta is feeling. There are some good moments, like her realization of Dave’s infidelity and subsequent slapping of him, but those moments are not too close. James Corden was his usual ebulliently likable self in a small role as a friend of Gretta’s who is failing in his own pursuit of his musical dream. In only one brief scene, Rob Morrow manages to put in a great appearance as a slimy record company executive that really came across as the most natural characterization in the film. Mos Def was his usual self–amazing if you close your eyes but painful to watch. That leaves Adam Levine, who spent the entire film with the same pained but also deeply pleased with himself look on his face that betrayed the fact that he is not an actor. Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener were way overqualified for parts that gave them nothing to do, a waste of some real talent on Carney’s part.

Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach didn’t have anything to say visually, making a film that visually could just as easily have been a made-for-television feature. It’s all standard lighting, standard camera movements, etc.

All told, this film was some really good characterization that led to some good performances surrounded by nothing at all interesting. It’s a pointless mess that would still be fun if the music were half as good as it thinks it is, but sadly it is not.

Notes

  • I did like that Dan says that Dave is “a rock star, even if he didn’t know it,” explaining succinctly why Dave and Gretta can’t work–Dave loves the audience and the adulation more than he will ever love her.
  • Dan first sees Gretta in a little club and she plays a song solo with just an acoustic guitar. That song isn’t bad. Then, he “arranges” it in his head, adding strings, piano, over-loud drums, etc. and it becomes horrendous. When she says, “I think you’ve lost the song in the production” to Dave later, I actually laughed aloud because that was true of every song in the movie.
  • The fact that it’s a film about New York musicians so soon after it invited comparisons to Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013). That’s not a comparison in which this film is going to fare well.
  • I have only seen him a few times and he’s never had to do much, so I don’t know if James Corden has much talent as an actor, but he is one of the most eminently likable actors I’ve ever seen.
  • The way the camera longingly fetishizes Hailee Steinfeld’s body immediately after pointing out that the character is supposed to be a high school-age teenager (seemingly too young to drive, though the only thing we know for sure is that she is definitely not 15) is slightly creepy.
  • Hailee Steinfeld was so clearly not playing what was coming out of the guitar after the first few notes that it made me laugh.

Thoughts on the Previews: July 25, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014)

  • Okay, I’m getting a little tired of the hype at this point. Only a week to go.
  • “Spirit in the Sky” is still awesome.

This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, USA 2014)

  • Look, another “strained family stuck discussing sex” comedy! It’s funny because family can’t talk about sex or get along, see?! Funny! Ha ha!
  • Seriously, the people who make and watch these types of movies really need to grow the hell up.
  • I have yet to see Tina Fey ever do anything funny. It’s good to see a female comedy star–something we don’t see often enough, particularly if it’s one who does so much of her own behind-the-camera work–but I really don’t see the great comic talent.

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, USA 2014)

  • Reese Witherspoon isn’t happy with one Oscar? I don’t see her getting a second one, but that seems to be the point of this movie.
  • The title looked very familiar on screen. I think Andy Bell and Vince Clark must be laughing.
  • Interesting and surprising fact: Reese Witherspoon is 38 years old.
  • I think it’s funny how the movie looks like it’s significantly similar to Into the Wild (Sean Penn, USA 2007), so much so that they hardly bothered to change the title. A lost teenager rejecting the man-made world in favor of nature seems to be a concept that Hollywood expects to resonate. Of course, when you have to have commercials before the film asking people to turn off their cell phones, you have to wonder how much of the audience actually has such an affinity for nature, no matter how much Oprah, Dr. Oz, etc. continue to promote the naturalistic fallacy.
  • Semi-related note: I had completely forgotten that Sean Penn directed Into the Wild. Its status as one of the most overrated films in recent history surely owes a lot to that fact.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (Ned Benson, USA 2014)

  • The trailer was really confusing, so I had to look this up to sort it out. There are actually three films in the Eleanor Rigby set, subtitled Him, Her, and Them. Benson made Him and Her, showing the same relationship and circumstances from the man’s point of view and then the woman’s but continued to tinker with them, eventually also releasing Them, which is what this film actually is. From that bit of description, Them sounds like bar far the least interesting of the films, but it’s the first one that seems to be getting a wide release in the US (as far as I can tell). The muddled trailer that seems really unsure how much it wants to reveal and at various times either makes it look like a film about a guy falling for the wrong woman or a woman trying to find herself makes more sense knowing that background.
  • I love Karen Gillan, but if anyone on earth is prettier, it’s Jessica Chastain. And Jessica Chastain is a fantastic actor.
  • There is a very Woody Allen quality about this project, sort of along the lines of Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen, USA 2004) and its experimenting with telling the same love story multiple ways. While I don’t think that film deserves the panning it has generally gotten, it certainly wasn’t as interesting as it could have been, so I’m interested in a similar concept arising here.

St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, USA 2014)

  • “Spirit in the Sky” for the second time in one set of trailers.
  • What the hell is this movie? It looks like a pastiche of cliches from a bunch of “coming of age” and “embittered old fart” films. (The latter is not generally accepted as a genre, but I defy anyone to say that they really believe it isn’t.)

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

  • I know it’s only in limited release, but I have still seen no trailer, no posters, no sign of impending release here. I will flip my lid if I end up waiting for DVD on two straight Woody Allen movies, even though Emma Stone annoys the hell out of me.
  • There were two other people in the theater today (Yes, I counted). A new Woody Allen film would get more people than that, even here.

Movie Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (Matt Reeves, USA 2014)

Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968) was a naked political allegory, like much of what Rod Serling wrote. As such, it was a creature of its time even more than most films. However, its basic plot is easily adaptable to making all kinds of points–it is, after all, not at all dissimilar from the zombie apocalypse plots that permeate the industry at this point. That’s what made it so rife for remaking, including the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA 2011), to which this film is a sequel.

Luckily for viewers, director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver don’t run away from the political themes that defined Schaffner’s original film–indeed, they make the political themes of the film obvious. American flags are displayed prominently (especially for a climactic moment when a dastardly ape stands on a giant flagpole to shout abuse at imprisoned humans), the characters openly discuss some of them, and no one could ever fail to notice the obvious political ramifications of including blowing up a skyscraper that is decorated with an American flag as a major story point. The non-human apes and humans are clearly symbols representing the (for lack of a better term) Middle Eastern Muslim world and the United States.

The story of the film is that of a group of humans, some of the few remaining on a planet that has long since been overtaken by non-human apes, who attempt an uneasy truce with a band of those non-human apes. Both groups are filled with radical elements who don’t want peace with their neighbors, causing internal strife that leads to external strife. Chaos ensues, eventually erupting in a pair of attempted massacres that leave both sides essentially destroyed.

Somewhat interestingly, it’s damn near impossible to pin down whether the non-human apes are the Muslims or the US, because the point of the film is a bit facile: There are extremists in every given group, and judging the entire group based on those extremists leads to dangerous miscommunication. If you want to broaden the point a bit (which is fair), it’s that both sets of people are the same–as Caesar says, “I see how much we are alike.”

An unfortunate problem for this film is that it is essentially a cartoon, like most current big budget films. It opens with a sequence that is a mixture of animation and newsreel footage that is a very effective montage that quickly explains the world as it exists as our story begins, but it unfortunately doesn’t really get any more real. Further, Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin display a shocking lack of visual imagination. The colors, the composition, the use of light and shadow, etc. are all so standard issue that they draw no attention whatsoever.

However, to its credit, the animation of the non-human apes is quite excellent–much better than most of the CGI going on in the film world. And for a film whose 3D effects are constantly (wrongly) being praised, it actually avoids the idiotic “make every chase go toward the camera” with which most 3D films seem to be infatuated.

I know that it is in vogue to praise every bit of Andy Serkis motion capture work as though it is a vintage Al Pacino performance. However, I have never known how to separate Serkis’s own work from the technology and artisans involved in bringing it to life. Caesar is certainly an achievement of some kind, though his perpetual snarling face is slightly over the top, but I have no idea where that credit should go.

Meanwhile, the other acting is good for what it is, but no one really has much of a part to play. Kodi Smit-McPhee, once so excellent in the thoroughly disappointing The Road (John Hillcoat, USA 2009), was the lone standout in a small role, evincing a depth and realism that no one else touches. Gary Oldman achieved something he has never achieved for me before: I could understand everything he said for the entire film, even though his accent slipped a few times. Still, there are no noticeably weak performances, which is something.

Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fine for what it is. It’s a somewhat simplistic cartoon political allegory that unfortunately does not know how to make its point visually, but the care and thought put into the writing is enough to carry the film to being better than the usual summer fare. Much like The Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA/Australia 2014) earlier this summer, it doesn’t set its sights all that high (though a bit higher than that film’s), but it mostly reaches what it aims for. You can’t expect that much more out of a Planet of the Apes film.

Notes

  • “It was a talking ape!” So are you, moron!
  • The non-human apes are apparently able to communicate effectively and efficiently by non-verbal means, so why do they at random times just decide to speak? And after the humans are “eradicated,” why wouldn’t they just permanently return to however they communicated before they learned human language?
  • How is this the “dawn” of the planet of the apes? It seems like it’s more like the downfall of the planet of the apes.
  • Why is Gary Oldman in every film? Does he make like 200 a year?
  • Love that “The Weight” is the song that survives the Simian Holocaust. Carmen and the Devil walking side by side . . .
  • 3D still doesn’t add anything. I hate 3D.