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.


  • 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.

Movie Review: “Ender’s Game” (Gavin Hood, USA 2013)

I loved Ender’s Game, the novel. I loved it some much that I also read Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender’s Shadow, and Shadow of the Hegemon (Currently, there are an unbelievable 14 novels in the “Enderverse,” so I’m clearly not the biggest fan since I have only read six.) even though there were only fleeting moments of being interesting anywhere in any of those novels. So, I went into this film with some major trepidation, knowing how difficult it would be to adapt.

Why would it be difficult? Well, first of all, it’s a story about genius children—Ender goes to battle school at six and defeats the aliens at 12, and the other characters are never more than a few years older than he is. (The film does what it should to get around that problem, simply making the kids older and never mentioning it.) Second, it’s a very, very violent story, especially for one that is mostly about 6-12-year-old children. Third, it’s a very complex, multi-stage plot. Fourth and most important, the truth is that the heart of the story is what happens inside its main character, not the sci-fi gloss around it.

In spite of the interesting science fiction elements and the relatively intricate plot, Ender’s Game is, at heart, the story of how nerdy child Ender Wiggin is destroyed by those around him. The bullying and torment of his brother and seemingly everyone else turns him into a violent, revenge-driven young man who kills his way through battle and command school, a revenge fantasy that surely strikes a chord with a great many fans. Meanwhile, the adults around him push a driven genius of a child into giving up on their goals repeatedly, though his attempts to give up constantly end up in him emerging accidentally victorious.[i] It’s pretty deep psychology for a movie that also needs to establish the setting and basic plot of the novel. Along the way, there is a lot of fun to be had in Ender’s tactical genius that’s born of his willingness to use whatever is at his disposal regardless of what conventional wisdom says and the continuation of his seeking vengeance, but it’s really the destruction of this child that forms the heart of this story.

Gavin Hood’s response to this problem was to excise everything about Ender’s internal story and even everything about how and why he is such a tactical genius and instead present a much simpler story: A smart kid gets recruited by a futuristic military to save humanity from an alien menace. The military trains him into a great leader using some painful techniques.

The problem is that Hood’s story now has no apparent point. While there are clear political points being made at various times (Colonel Graff has become President George W. Bush, whose father had not yet even been elected when the novel was written.), the film doesn’t focus on them and indeed seems confused about what its own message in that area is. The ending suggests that what Hood wanted was for the point to be the value of life, but it’s difficult to square that interpretation with much of what precedes it. Without a central point, the film plays as a simple story of military training set in a futuristic environment. Even for making a film of the basic story, Hood fails by removing most things that are interesting—he reduces the military’s tactics in training Ender to just, “Keep him isolated so he has to figure things out for himself,” he gives numerous very obvious hints that the final battle with the Formics (which he thankfully avoids calling “Buggers” the way the novel does repeatedly)  is coming far too soon for Ender to finish his training before it, he jumps through everything far too quickly for us to have any real feeling that we are going through Ender’s journey with him, and he tries to take the edge off of Ender’s violence.[ii] He even manages to mess up the ending, first by telegraphing that the final “simulation” is real (Which was an incredible, shocking discovery in the novel—truly one of the most dynamite dramatic moments I have ever read.) and then by including the final chapter’s material, material which was included in the novel only to set up the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.[iii]

Visually, Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine are really trapped with a difficult story that requires them to be at the mercy of special effects technology, and they actually manage to pull off the effects relatively successfully. However, when faced with moments that require little-to-no such technology, they fall flat, using CGI when it’s not needed and showing absolutely no visual imagination otherwise. It’s a shame, but they are able to handle technical hurdles and not artistic ones, leaving the film quite visually uninteresting.

Acting-wise, the film surprisingly turns out well. Asa Butterfield, fresh off of a strong performance leading Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA 2011), plays Ender with a depth and intelligence that does not appear in the script, showing us complex emotions and even some real subtlety. Even Harrison Ford shows some restraint and plays his role as Colonel Graff, a much larger character here than in the novel, well. Hailee Steinfeld also stands out as a very natural performance, even if it’s a simple role as Petra Arkanian.

Steve Jabslonsky’s score deserves a note for just how conventional it is. It’s so conventional that you could mentally fill in a score on your own beforehand and end up right on. It’s not really bad, but it’s still uninteresting.

Overall, this is a bad film. It’s well-acted and there are still hints of an interesting story here, but everything that made the novel interesting has been removed, leaving a dull husk. Adapting Ender’s Game is a nigh-impossible task, but Gavin Hood was not up to it.

[i] He beats the two armies by deciding that he has no way to actually win and so if he goes through the victory procedure that may technically count as a win and even if it doesn’t will definitely end an unfair game. The film undoes that entire plot point by having Dap claim that getting through the gate is the goal of the game. He beats the giant in the Mind Game by becoming frustrated enough that he just wants to avoid the game itself and so attacks the guy in charge of it. He destroys the alien homeworld because he decides that if he sends his strongest weapon at the planet at the center of everything, it will be over one way or the other. In each case, he’s giving up and ends up winning by accident.

[ii] Admittedly, it has been quite a few years since I last read the novel, but I’ve read it five times, so I believe I’m right that he kills Stilson at the beginning. I’m certain he also kills Bonzo Madrid, his carcass sitting on the ship that he and Graff take back to earth. Hood instead has him just beat up Stilson and put Madrid (rather accidentally) into a coma. Ender thus loses much of the violent edge the book gives him.

[iii] I should note that the material at the end does actually fit with the story of Ender’s Game if you see it, as I do, as being focused on Ender’s internal struggles. It’s Ender trying to pick up the pieces of his own shattered psyche, and being far more successful in doing so than anyone would guess after what’s been done to him throughout this novel. That doesn’t change the fact that, narratively, it was only in place in order to set up Card’s next novel, which he oddly insists is far more interesting.