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

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Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio

Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche