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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Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame