Begin Again


Can a song save your life?

Can a song save your life?

(2013) Romance (Weinstein) Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green, Mos Def, James Corden, Marco Assante, Rob Morrow, Jennifer Li, Ian Brodsky, Shannon Maree Walsh, Mary Catherine Garrison, David Abeles, Jimmy Palumbo, Colin Love, Ron Voz, David Pendleton, Jasmine Hope Bloch, Sheena Colette. Directed by John Carney

Music has great restorative properties; studies have concluded that certain tones can stimulate the brain to produce endorphins. There are some therapists who use music to help those with depression and other emotional and mental challenges. Music can heal people, even people in the music business.

In a Greenwich Village bar on an open mike night, Steve (Corden), an ex-pat Brit is playing guitar and singing his song. He invites a friend onstage, but Greta (Knightley) isn’t very willing to go. In fact, she’s downright reluctant but with the patrons urging her on she finally goes up onstage. Thirty seconds into her song, they lose interest and resume their conversations and ordering drinks.

That is, except for one guy – Danny (Ruffalo), a middle aged former record executive who that afternoon had been fired from the record label he had started with his partner Saul (Def). Danny had been sinking into an alcoholic morass ever since his wife Miriam (Keener), a music journalist, had an affair with a colleague which provoked Danny into leaving him and his daughter Violet (Steinfeld). Violet has entered the sexual phase of teen angst and dresses provocatively to get attention, much to the horror of her dad and the indifference of her mom.

Greta isn’t without a backstory of her own. A Brit, she’d come to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Levine) who was also a musician but one that a major label had signed. His career trajectory was promising indeed and of course promptly he falls into an affair with Mim (Li), an assistant with the label. Greta had essentially booked her flight home and was staying the night in Steve’s tiny apartment which was how she wound up in the bar in the first place.

Maybe everyone in the bar hears a lifeless tune that sounds like every other folk-influenced song that seems to hold so much sway in alternative rock and pop these days but Danny hears something different. He hears an arrangement with violin, drums, bass, piano and backing vocals. He hears a song that has meaning and will inspire people. After having been on a cold streak for so long he finally hears something that he can work with.

At first Greta isn’t interested. She understandably just wants to go home. However, something about him is sincere. This is a man who needs fixing – as someone who needs fixing herself she can recognize the trait in others. Maybe they can fix each other. That going out on her own and making it as a musician would be a gigantic middle finger to her ex probably had its appeal as well.

Danny comes up with the idea of recording the album live outside of the studio in various outdoor locations in New York – the roof of a building, a subway station, rowing boats in Central Park – sounds kind of gimmicky but Danny uses Steve as an engineer to set up a mobile recording studio (not as hard as it sounds in this digital era) and assembles a band. For financial help, he uses one-time discovery Troublegum (Green) who realizes he owes his success to Danny and is willing to help him be successful once again.

Danny begins to reconnect with Violet who also bonds somewhat with Greta. Danny and Miriam are beginning to make reconciliation noises while back into Greta’s life comes Dave. Will they be able to go back to their past relationships with this new artistic synergy in place? Or will the past drag them down back to where they were before?

Carney also directed Once which may well be the best movie about songwriting and the redemptive power of music on those who write it and those who hear it ever made. Like in that movie, the actors do their own singing and to a large extent, their own playing. Knightley actually has a pretty pleasant voice although it isn’t remarkable. Levine, a veteran of Maroon 5 and a fixture on The Voice, has a kind of asshole role to play and he does surprisingly well, making the character somewhat sympathetic even though his behavior isn’t always the best. In fact, none of the characters here is perfect and all of them are subject to their own flaws at one point or another in the movie.

In fact, the music is pretty dang good here, surprisingly so. The music is mostly the work of Gregg Alexander, better known as the lead vocalist and songwriter for the New Radicals. While the film name checks (or tune checks) luminaries like Leonard Cohen, Hoagie Carmichael, Stevie Wonder and Sinatra, the bulk of the soundtrack is a folky poppy adult alternative that won’t offend anybody unless of course one is offended by folky poppy adult alternative music.

Ruffalo is always solid and while he hasn’t achieved the kind of status of a Tom Hanks or a Brad Pitt, he is nonetheless dependable for turning out good performances and he does the same here. Yeah, Danny has a few personality tics and he can be overbearing but you get the sense that his heart is in the right place – with his estranged wife and daughter. He knows he has some work to do on himself but given the right inspiration he might actually be able to get it all back. One roots for him to do just that.

While this isn’t to the level of Once, this is a better movie than a lot of the disappointing mid-summer films that are out in theaters currently and will certainly be worth having in your library once it makes it to home video. You might just find it in ours when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo and Knightley had a different kind of chemistry that is strong in its own right. Great music.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too offbeat for some. A little bit fairy tale-esque.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knightley had to learn to play the guitar for her role and her husband, musician James Righton, offered to teach her but his lessons proved to be so atrocious that, in her own words, “they nearly led to divorce and murder,” but the couple remain happily married to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Once

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 22 Jump Street

Hotel Transylvania


Hotel Transylvania

Count Dracula dispenses some fatherly advice.

(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Fran Drescher, David Spade, Cee-Lo Green, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, Brian James, Luenell, Rob Riggle. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

 

Being the father of a teenage daughter is  a special kind of hell. We, as dads, know what the world is capable of and it’s natural to be a bit overprotective of our baby girls. Still, it must be way harder to raise a daughter in a world where the majority wants to kill off your entire species.

Count Dracula (Sandler) has more reason than most to fear the humans. While vacationing in Hawaii he met a beautiful vampire named Martha whom he married and had a daughter with. However, angry locals discovered that they had two vampires in their midst and set fire to the house. Dracula was able to rescue his daughter but not his wife. Enraged over the loss of his wife, he swears to protect his daughter from the real monsters and builds a castle in Transylvania that will be forever hidden from human view, a place where his fellow monsters can relax, retreat and be themselves. It’s Hotel Transylvania and every boy and ghoul is just dying to get there (couldn’t help it).

Operating on a strictly humans forbidden basis, the hotel becomes a success. Drac’s daughter Mavis (Gomez) is now 118 and getting restless with her protected lifestyle. She wants to live (which is a bit problematic for the undead), travel, see the world and experience everything. Dracula seems to be all for it at first, but this turns out to be a bit of a ruse.

All of their friends are gathering, from the henpecked Frankenstein (James) and his shrewish wife Eunice (Drescher) to the exhausted werewolf dad Wayne (Buscemi), his also exhausted wife Wanda (Shannon) and their brood of…I don’t know, say 150? – werewolf pups. Then there’s the coolest mummy ever, Murray (Green). They’re all gathering for Mavis’ birthday, an annual event.

Into this chaos rolls (or rather walks) Johnny (Samberg), a hiker who could pass for a surfer or a stoner or both. Rather than being terrified (although at first he does have a bit of a panic attack), he becomes fascinated by the monsters and one in particular – Mavis with whom he is instantly smitten.

Dracula is in a quandary. Not only must he keep his daughter safe from this human, he must keep the guests from finding out about him or else their confidence in their safety at the hotel would be compromised. The problem is that Johnny really isn’t a bad guy once you get to know him. And Mavis has developed feelings for him as well. What’s a dad – and the king of the undead at that – to do?

Tartakovsky, best known for his Cartoon Network classics Star Wars: Clone Wars, Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls tackles his first animated feature with an all-star cast and a much more detailed animation than you usually get on the hideously bad CN. It doesn’t hurt that he has an all-star cast to work with.

Sandler usually has a tendency to be over-the-top but here he’s actually fairly restrained. We get all of the things that are endearing about him and none of the things that are irritating. It’s one of his better performances in the past five years. He gives the overprotective Dracula a touch of humanity that many other performances lack. Yes this is a comedy and meant to be about as scary as Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Disney World but that doesn’t mean it has to be depth-less. Sandler gives the character a whole lot of reasons for us to identify with him.

Most of the other characters are given less to work with, although Samberg actually acquits himself nicely as the heart-of-gold stoner dude and Lovitz gets to go a little bit over-the-top with his Quasimodo chef’s role. Sadly, that’s about the extent of it. While there are plenty of in-jokes that adults – particularly those who love classic horror films – are going to chuckle at, there really isn’t much in the way of story which we’ve all seen more than once before.

The universe inhabited here is familiar and fun and makes internal sense. While the ending scene with the rap concert at Mavis’ party is unnecessary and simply awful, almost Disney Channel-esque in it’s bad rappery (Cee-Lo baby – you’re better than this, dawg) most of the rest is merely predictable. There are some fun little gags – like Dracula making a demonic face every time he is annoyed.

This isn’t groundbreaking or head-turning in any real way. It’s merely pleasant entertainment that will keep the kids satisfied and the parents won’t necessarily be squirming in their chairs waiting for the show to end. It will probably end up being a Halloween perennial, showing up on cable and later on broadcast TV every October without fail. In that sense it will become a classic because of repeated viewings but it will be one that while inoffensive isn’t necessarily a classic because of exceptional merit.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely drawn universe. Plenty of in-jokes for classic horror fans.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is kind of ho-hum. Rap scene at the end gratuitous and stupid.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few scary images, some rude humor and a bit of cartoon action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on World Rabies Day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The movie is getting seriously mixed reviews..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mad Monster Party

MONSTER LOVERS: Among the famous movie monsters that make an appearance here are Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, the Blob, the Fly and Quasimodo.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Hunt for Red October

New Releases for the Week of September 28, 2012


September 28, 2012

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA

(Columbia/Sony Animation) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Cee-Lo Green, Steve Buscemi, David Spade. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

In an effort to insulate his willful daughter Mavis from the world, Count Dracula decides to turn his castle into a hotel for monsters only. There, he and Mavis can hang out with Frankenstein and his bride, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and all of their friends. However when a human hiker stumbles into the Castle and Mavis takes a liking to him, all manner of chaos will ensue. However, I don’t know how eager I’d be to have Dracula as my father-in-law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some rude humor, action and scary images)

Looper

(Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano. In the future time travel has been discovered but it’s illegal; so only criminals use it, to dispose of their “problems.” They send the people they want to whack back in time to the present day where an assassin – called a Looper – murders them and disposes of the body. Nice. Neat. But for one Looper, he is put in a very disconcerting situation when his assignment turns out to be his own future self. So would that be homicide or suicide?

See the trailer, an interview and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use)

OMG – Oh My God!

(Viacom18) Mithun Chakraborty, Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Poonam Jhawer. When an antique shopkeeper loses everything to a tornado, his faith in God wavers to the point where he makes it his mission to convince others of the non-existence of God. This leads to mayhem until he gets an unexpected visit from Lord Krishna himself.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Pitch Perfect

(Universal) Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson. A shy young girl who has just enrolled in college is roped into the a cappella group, even though she’d much rather listen to music than make it. However she resolves to take the group from their traditional arrangements to mash-ups of modern hits which might lead them to success at competitions. Or unfair comparisons to “Glee.”

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, language and drug references)

Robot & Frank

(Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. The concerned children of a retired thief are worried that he is unable to care for himself living alone. So against the old man’s wishes, his son buys him a robot that is programmed to improve his physical and mental health. The old man soon finds his life changing in some ways – and returning back to what it used to be in others.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Solomon Kane

(Radius) James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige. A soldier in the 16th century discovers his actions have damned his soul. He vows to redeem himself and refrain from violence for the remainder of his days, but when a supernatural threat descends upon the land, he discovers that his skills may be the only thing to save his home and people.

See the trailer, featurettes, a clip and a link to stream the full movie from Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: R (for violence throughout)

Won’t Back Down

(20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter. Two mothers, horrified at the state of education in their poverty-level neighborhood, resolve to improve the quality of the education in their area. Met with opposition from the city and education bureaucracy they find themselves forced to take the fight much further than they thought possible.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)