Begin Again

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by John Carney.  Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Adam Levine, and Catherine Keener.

My biggest complaint with Begin Again doesn’t even concern the film itself. The only major criticism I have is the title. The filmmakers should have stuck with the original: Can a Song Save Your Life. While that title does have a certain degree of awkward cheesiness to it, it fits the film perfectly. For one, the film itself has some awkwardly cheesy moments, and secondly, the film is not about starting over but instead about one moment, one person, or one song that can completely change the direction of one’s life.

However, I have no intention to hold a bland generic title against any film, and Begin Again is an absolute joy from start to finish, even during the parts that don’t work quite as well as others. I think a few more of the songs should have been diegetic rather than underscoring, and as much as I love Casablanca, having Keira Knightley call “As Time Goes By” her favorite movie song was weird, especially when there were so many choices that would have better reflected the conflict of the film. I was personally hoping she would say “The Rainbow Connection.” However, it is also pointless to hold that against the film. While director John Carney does not quite recapture the intimate magic of Once, he comes close.

The film opens with Greta (Keira Knightley, who sings surprisingly well) in a New York bar, where her guitarist friend Steve (James Corden) ushers her onstage to perform one of her songs, which she says is “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” The song is “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which has been the main song used to underscore the trailers. The arrangement that opens the film is just Knightley singing accompanied by simple guitar chords, not the fully orchestrated version used in all the ads. At the end of the performance, the crowd in the bar is paying no attention to her, except Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who looks thunderstruck.

The film flashes back to earlier that day, revealing Dan is an ex-record producer, having been fired that morning for failing to sign any new talent in awhile. Prior to being fired, an hilarious sequence showcased his desperate searching for a new client among nothing but crappy demo tapes. After picking up his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) from school, with whom he has to bolt out of a bar because Dan has no money on him, he drops Violet off with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and then heads to another bar to get drunk that evening. When Dan hears Greta sing, he is given a glimmer of hope, since her song and her talent have given him a chance to turn his career around.

At this point the film repeats the opening scene of Knightley performing “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” However, the performance is shot from Dan’s perspective, as the audience hears what he hears: a fully orchestrated pop song with guitar, drums, piano, violin, cello, and bass. It’s a brilliant choice to bookend the opening segment of Dan hitting rock bottom, showing how something simple and unpolished can be transformed into an elegant, professional work of art while maintaining the simplicity and roughness that originally made it endearing, a theme which will be important in a later confrontation.

As a force of habit, after hearing her sing, Dan immediately goes over to Greta, introduces himself, offers his card, and asks to producer her. She is shocked and skeptical, and turns him down. If this were a standard Hollywood film, the storyline would then take this trajectory: Dan deceives her regarding his unemployment, yet persuades her to record anyway. When she eventually learns that he does not have a label, a huge fight threatens the success of the music they have recorded; however, they overcome that setback and make a great album anyway.

Other than making a good album, Begin Again follows none of those clichés. It is refreshing how original and lifelike this film is. There are no elaborate deceptions, no awkward unbelievable romance subplots, no standard setbacks threatening the success of everything that was undertaken. All the characters are totally believable, and the storyline follows a natural path for human beings who are committed to their work and behave with decency while struggling with some flaws.

Obviously, Dan does persuade Greta to record an album; however, he perks her interest by telling her the truth of his situation, admitting he only gave her the producer spiel out of habit. Badly broken herself, Greta takes a day to think over his offer, and when she accepts, Dan cannot convince his former label to produce her. So he comes up with an ingenious solution: record outdoors in different areas of New York City. Greta’s friend Steve has a full studio’s worth of recording equipment. Dan recruits musicians who are willing to work for a cut of the final profit: a pianist working as a ballet accompanist and a cellist and violinist from Manhattan School of Music who are thrilled to play anything that’s “not f**king Vivaldi.” *

Before Greta agreed to record the album, the film has a flashback to show why she is depressed and alone in New York. Like the flashback showing how Dan hit bottom, her flashback is framed by two performances of the same song, “Lost Stars,” which she had composed for her ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Greta and Dave had come to New York for an album deal for Dave, after his success composing a film soundtrack. While there, she discovered he was cheating on her. That knowledge transforms “Lost Stars” from a pretty tune to a poignant reflection of Greta’s sorrow.

Since Greta was depressed after Dave’s infidelity, her old boyfriend Steve allowed her to crash at his apartment until she booked a flight back to England. Fortunately, Steve forced her to perform at the bar, Dan heard her, and she agreed to work with them on an album.

Like Once, Begin Again is about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. While on the journey, the characters’ enthusiasm and diligence for their art carries over into other aspects of their lives. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. The healing of wounds between father and daughter is a beautiful scene, especially when Greta forces the two mediocre musicians to record a small part on one of the album tracks. An old friend of Dan’s pays for two musicians for the album, simply because he wants to help out.

Are such acts unbelievable? Or is the perfect timing of events too coincidental and stretching credibility? I don’t think so. One of the best experiences I had during my undergraduate occurred because I happened to be walking out to the parking lot simultaneously with three conductors who were desperately looking for a replacement celeste player for a concert next week, and with very little though I said, “I can do it.” Begin Again captures the joy and excitement of moments like that.

 
*While I am one of the few classically trained musicians who kind of enjoys Vivaldi, especially because playing continuo on Vivaldi can be simple yet fun, I can totally attest to the accuracy of that statement.

 

Content Advisory: Frequent vulgar language, occasionally quite strong; some profanity; mild sexual references; and depiction of substance abuse.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Jersey Boys

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Christopher Walken, and Joseph Russo.

Formulaic but mostly enjoyable, and if not enjoyable, certainly watchable. Beyond that I am not sure there is much more to say about Jersey Boys. I suppose I should add that its target audience, those who have fond memories of listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as young adults as well as those who appreciate their unique sound, will absolutely love it.

Likewise, if one finds Valli’s unique nasal sound insufferable, then I imagine he will most likely feel the same way about this film. Personally, while I do not think The Four Seasons were one of the greatest bands, I do enjoy their music and think they were a good band, even if, as one critic points out in the film, some of their songs had a tendency to be derivative.

While I most certainly enjoyed Jersey Boys, I cannot deny that the film itself suffers to some degree from the same derivative quality that debatably plagued The Four Seasons’ songs. There are random instances of Scorsese influences throughout, the storyline is very generic, and having all four band members act as narrators causes the story to lose focus as it haphazardly recounts different events, unable to settle on a definitive perspective from which to tell the story.

The film opens with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) breaking the fourth wall, promising the audience the true version of how The Four Seasons started. The camera follows Tommy to the local barber shop where Frankie Castelluccio -soon to be Valli – (John Lloyd Young) works as an assistant. At the shop, it becomes clear that Frankie has a powerful friend in the local mafia boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, in a performance right out of a Scorsese film). That friendship will come into play towards the end of the film, but until then, DeCarlo mostly disappears once he makes a few comments that the world will know Frankie’s voice.

After a few run-ins with the law, Tommy’s band loses their lead singer, and Tommy decides to give the position to Frankie so they have a trio: Frankie on lead vocals, Tommy on lead guitar and tenor vocals, and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) on bass guitar and bass vocals. Since trios are falling out of fashion, Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci played by Joseph Russo) introduces them to Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a keyboardist and composer, who is eager to write for Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

Once the film introduces Bob, he primarily takes over the narration, detailing how the band agreed to hire him, how they came up with the name The Four Seasons, and how they became famous by recording with Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). After several years of incredible success, sixteen number one hits, and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the inevitable setback occurs.

After Bob Gaudio’s narration culminates with a disastrous fallout, Nick begins breaking the fourth wall to tell his version of events. The film flashes back two years and recounts the lead up to the inevitable fallout from the quiet band member’s perspective. Shifting the narration to Nick was an interesting choice, but I am not convinced it was a good one. The fallout was obviously coming, because there were too many strong, conflicting personalities in The Four Seasons, most notably Tommy and Bob. When the film focused on their perspectives, it set up a good contrast. When the film introduced a third narrator, the sense of conflict and plot direction was lost, and too much of the film ended up feeling like mildly interesting vignettes.

Breaking the fourth wall is often maligned by critics, but in Jersey Boys I think it worked for the most part. It created an atmosphere of down to earth simplicity and gave the feeling of being there at a concert.

John Lloyd Young reprises the role he won a Tony for originating on Broadway, and his ability to emulate Frankie Valli’s actual voice is very impressive. The entire cast clearly has a blast performing the musical numbers, and their enjoyment is somewhat infectious.

The Scorsese references make the film unsure whether it is a gritty story of struggling backstreet boys from New Jersey or a tale celebrating the rise of a famous American band. Portraying the characters as seedy Scorsese-esque gangster-types does not help. Even Scorsese reigned in the grit for his musical, New York, New York. However, I must admit that I laughed loudly at the direct GoodFellas reference, even though I think I am the only one at my screening who understood the joke. When Joe Pesci first appears, Tommy tells him he’s funny, and quoting the line that Pesci himself famously improvised in GoodFellas, Joe retorts, “Funny how?”

As much as I love musicals, I never had an opportunity to see Jersey Boys on stage, and I cannot speak to the accuracy of the adaptation. It is risky to create a musical based on preexisting songs, but Jersey Boys pulls it off well by inserting the songs in the story at the point which they were created. Thus it dramatizes a story that already exists, highlighting key moments with musical numbers. That is a much wiser approach than trying to paste fragments of a story onto songs that do not work with that story as the colossal train wreck Mamma Mia did.

At my screening, the fairly large audience of septuagenarians gave it an enthusiastic ovation, and I expect fans of The Four Season will share their sentiment. Due to a few obvious flaws, mostly predictability and heavy-handedness, I could not bring myself to participate in that applause, but I did think the film was a decent musical which I would not discourage anyone from seeing.

 

Content Advisory: Rough language throughout, some profanity, an off-screen encounter, a fleeting anti-clerical jab, and scenes of family discord.                              MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen.

As a sequel not only to 2011’s X-Men: First Class, but the first three X-men films as well, Days of Future Past had many acts to follow, some notably better than others. This film had to serve not only as a grand finale to the first series, but also lay the groundwork for future films in the current series. I do not envy the scriptwriters who had to put together a coherent story that connected several films which were originally not intended to be connected.

The way that the filmmakers achieved a follow-up to four (or six) previous X-Men films from different timelines is fairly ingenious. When a war with mutant killing machines, the Sentinels, has nearly eradicated the mutants and any humans who might one day give birth to a mutant, Professor X and Magneto, (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) having reconciled their differences, have Shadowcat (Ellen Page) send Logan (Hugh Jackman) back in time to find their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and convince them to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), during which she would be captured and her DNA used to implement Trask’s design for mutant killing Sentinels.

Sending Logan back in time consists of Shadowcat projecting Logan’s current consciousness onto his 1973 self, where armed with the foreknowledge of the future, he can persuade the other X-Men to change their actions, thus altering history and causing the Sentinels never to come into existence. While he is at it, Logan’s rewriting of history will also cause X-Men 3, which everyone hated, never to have happened.

In addition to undoing the storyline of X-Men 3, Days of Future Past somewhat feels like an apology for that film. Bryan Singer, who left the franchise after X-Men 2, returns to direct, and he is at the top of his game. He stages the action scenes with a sense of fun, never obscuring the action with chaotic editing, and for the most part keeps the action on a reasonable sized scale. The louder, noisier, ever increasingly violent excess of last summer’s Man of Steel is not on display here. There are a couple very large set pieces, but those seem believable within the world of the film, and they occur at logical climaxes. It does seem that some mutants, notably Quicksilver (Evan Peters), are powerful enough to solve almost any problem, which raises the question as to why they don’t use their powers towards the film’s end, but that is an oversight which is fairly easy to forgive amidst the enjoyable display of mutant powers that we do see.

Days of Future Past brings together what is probably the largest cast of superheroes in any recent film, and all of them manage to be memorable, even if in a few cases that is due more to special effects than character development. However, the central figures: Wolverine, Professor X, Beast, Magneto, and Mystique all well written, they have very good chemistry with one another, and the actors turn in convincing performances. For that matter, the entire cast gives it their all, and they are a joy to watch. Quicksilver’s major action set piece is hilarious, and it makes very clever use of slow motion, something I have not seen in an action film in a long time.

Being a time travel film, there are naturally some discontinuities. The generic script has to mildly contradict previous films at some points, and the ending raises more questions than it answers, even if it does permit one mutant to reappear in sequels he might not otherwise have been in. Despite the minor flaws, X-Men Days of Future Past is an exciting, intelligent superhero sequel during a time of uninspired, by the numbers superhero films that left me looking forward to the next outing with these characters.

 

Content Advisory: Fleeting rear nudity, quasi-nudity throughout, a mildly suggestive scenario, much action violence, some crass language and one strong vulgarity.                               MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B

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Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Satoshi Kon.               Voices of Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Emi Shinohara.

“Excuse me…who are you?” Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) nervously repeats her only line as she prepares to shoot her first scene as a television actress. After a successful career as a Japanese pop idol, the young celebrity wants to expand her work to include more serious forms of entertainment. However, change is difficult, and due to obsessive fans and crippling self doubts Mima begins to question her profession and her identity as hallucinations that blur her television series with her personal life cause her perception of reality to start slipping away.

On the other hand, Mima’s hallucinations might not be projections of her uneasy subconscious. It is clear that a devoted fan is stalking her, the threats she has received are very real, as are the murders of those who exploit her vulnerability.

Then again, the police can find little connection between the murders, and by the time they happen, Mima is already so upset and self-conscious that she is sure everything is somehow connected to her. Regarding the obsessive fan, after the opening scene where he threatens a rioter trash talking Mima, no one notices him again. Mima is the only one who sees him loitering in the shadows everywhere she goes.

To compound Mima’s confusion and anxiety, a devoted fan has set up a webpage called “Mima’s Room,” which functions as an online diary of Mima’s daily activities. When she first discovers it, Mima is amused at how well one person knows her idiosyncrasies. However, as the online account deviates more and more from her daily activities as an actress, instead detailing her daily activities when she was a pop star, Mima begins to wonder which version of her life is real. To make things worse, Mima is discovering tangible proof in her apartment of the online account of her supposed activities, activities of which she has no memory.

The driving force behind Mima’s fear is a projection of her subconscious which criticizes every choice she makes, calling her a traitor to her real self. Mima is susceptible to these criticisms, because she does feel uneasy. She misses her friends with whom she used to perform, but more notably, the television executives are writing scenarios that are freakishly similar to her personal life, and they are exploiting her and trying to force her into racy situations that will boost ratings. The first appearance of Mima’s critical subconscious is synchronized with the arrival of a script that demands she film a rape scene. When Mima is tricked into a nude photo shoot, the subconscious informs her that she is no longer the real Mima and that the real Mima (the subconscious) will return to performing as a pop star while the actress fades into obscurity.

Until the very end, it remain unclear whether Mima is being driven insane by a dangerously obsessed fan, whether her own guilt is making her uneasy, or something else entirely. The depiction of this uncertainty and the possible surreal obfuscation of multiple mentalities is what Perfect Blue captures brilliantly. The editing effortlessly fluctuates between different realities, and towards the end, the film begins to show repetitions of the same event. One time it is depicted as it takes place in Mima’s television series, the other time it is within the nightmare of Mima’s subconscious. Each version concludes with Mima waking up in her apartment, distressed and confused, heightening the mystery of what is real and what is not.

Perfect Blue was released in 1997, and director Satoshi Kon makes excellent use of the novelty of the internet. The world wide web was a new phenomenon and obsession, and in the film it is used to manipulate Mima’s perception of reality as well as mirror her uncertainty as she begins a new career. Even five years later, that sensation would have been lost.

The film is also very culturally aware of other horror films, and there are references to two of the greatest psychological thrillers concerning split personalities and character transformations: The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. The television series Mima is filmingconcerns a serial killer who skins his female victims so he can become a woman, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Another scene refers to a role that Jodie Foster played before The Silence of the Lambs. And the ending takes a page directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece.

Before his tragic death in 2010 at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, Satohsi Kon directed four feature length anime films and created one anime television show. Perfect Blue was the first of those, and it is an incredible achievement for a debut film, capturing a terrific sense of mystery and showcasing the danger of obsession that twists reality until it is almost unrecognizable.

 

Content Advisory: Graphic depiction of rape, full frontal nudity, several very gruesome murders, and an atmosphere of horror throughout.                         Not rated, would be NC-17 if it were live action.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Virgin Spring

Year of Release: 1960     Directed by Ingmar Bergman.     Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson.

Ingmar Bergman has a well deserved reputation as not only one of Sweden’s greatest directors, but one of the greatest directors period. He also has a reputation of being a “difficult” director whose films, especially the later ones, are artsy and bleak, characterized by dreamlike narratives and themes of existential doubt. While faith and mortality play an important role in The Virgin Spring, the film is unique among Bergman’s output, not only because it is one of his few films for which he did not write the screenplay.

The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman’s most straightforward films with a completely linear narrative taken from a 13th Century poem, no hallucinations or dream sequences, no playing with the viewer’s perception of reality, and no crisis of faith or characters plagued by doubt. The reason for the first three is that Bergman clearly wanted the film to unfold like a fable, or a minstrel’s tale, which it does hauntingly and brilliantly. The reason for the last choice is simple, Bergman set the film in 13th Century Sweden, where a strong faith was taken for granted, and using that lack of doubt as a backdrop, Bergman explores naïveté, vengeance, sorrow, and contrition.

The religious nature of all the characters also makes the tragedy and horror of the story felt much more profoundly. Bergman frames the film with the same character kneeling down and leaning forward in prayer. The first time she is invoking Odin to punish another woman with whom she is angry. The second time is out of a feeling of guilt and horror, witnessing the results of the terrible tragedy that has occurred. The villains are also slightly more complex than simple menacing thugs. They are relieved when they realize their crime will not jeopardize the celebration of the Mass; the youngest of them becomes unable to eat because he is so disturbed by what he witnessed. While the film never suggests sympathizing with the criminals (nor does it need to), when it reverses their position from antagonists to victims, it is taken for granted that the next crime will be equally brutal. To reinforce the comparison, both crimes end with a senseless death. Under Bergman’s meticulous pacing, the reversal occurs just after the halfway mark, which was when the first crime occurred and set the stage for the second.

Birgitta Pettersson perfectly captures the correct balance of mischievous, naive, and compassionate as the titular virgin Karin. As her father and lord of a large castle, Max von Sydow is fittingly stoic and authoritative. The scenes where he breaks down are shot with him facing away from the camera, as if he does not want anyone to see him broken and unsure. Even with his back to the camera, von Sydow powerfully conveys the sorrow he is suffering.

This was only second film Bergman shot with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the first being Sawdust and Tinsel seven years earlier. The Swedish countryside looks absolutely stunning, and the stark black and white camera work is as haunting, chilling, and poetic as the tale it tells.

 

Content Advisory: Depiction of rape, several murders, and shadowy nudity – nothing particularly graphic                        Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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