Movie #65: Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampires. This will be reviewed in full.
Movie #66: Barefoot. We had no intention of watching this, but when we saw Scott Speedman we had a Felicity flashback. Of course she should follow him. Coincidentally, in Barefoot beautiful mental patient Evan Rachel Wood follows him to New Orleans.
Movie #67: Labor Day. Jason Reitman’s latest has been vilified by critics, but we suspect they didn’t get it. It was directed by the guy who made Thank You For Smoking and Young Adult after all. It has to be a trick.
Labor Day begs the question: If at the supermarket Josh Brolin politely but firmly asks you for a ride, would you not dump the groceries and the kids to do as he asks, overlooking the minor detail that he is an escaped convict? And if he does all the repairs on your house, cooks and cleans, fixes the car, bakes peach pie, and plays catch with your child and a kid with cerebral palsy, would you not keep him? Critics miss the obvious: It’s porn for disillusioned girls!
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With Begin Again, writer-director John Carney restates the theme of his indie hit Once—the power of music to connect people—but with bigger stars. It’s a low-key, unassuming movie that may be of interest to people who have been on the margins of the music industry. Such as ourself, which is why we like it.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Wheeler, a dejected fallen genius producer/A&R (two letters that immediately whisk us back to the 90s, when everyone was in A&R and even the clunkiest garage band had a shot at signing with a major label) man who, on the day he gets kicked out of the independent record company he co-founded, accidentally walks into an impromptu performance by songwriter Greta. Yeah, it’s on the same day, but we’ll overlook that for Mark Ruffalo, who makes us want to adopt him.
Greta, played by Keira Knightley who can put on a shapeless house dress and make it look trendy, is also dejected. She had come to the US with her musician boyfriend Dave Kohl, who predictably cheats on her on his way to stardom. Dave is played by Adam Levine, whom we almost did not recognize with his clothes on.
Dan convinces Greta to do an album, and since they don’t have a production budget they record the songs guerrilla-style in locations all over New York City. In the process Dan sorts out his relationships with his estranged music journalist ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld, our favorite hyphenated Filipino in Hollywood, who has something other teenage actresses don’t have: she really comes across as a teenager). He also has to figure out his place in the current music industry, which bears very little resemblance to the music scene of the 90s. Dave’s new fame makes Greta think hard about what she wants as an artist. Musicians have always had to deal with the temptation to sell out, but in the 21st century the number of ways an artist can sell out has increased exponentially.
The choices that a recording artist has to make are neatly demonstrated with the evolution of a song called Lost Stars. First we hear the basic acoustic rendition by Greta (Keira can sing). Then we hear the overproduced album version by Dave, who has no problem with giving the audience what they want to hear. Then we hear Dave performing it before an audience. There are many songs in Begin Again, and it always makes us happy to hear Stevie Wonder acknowledged, but Lost Stars is the one we hear most often. It’s a pleasant tune, but like the rest of Greta’s album, fairly generic indie, often mopey, pop. In other words it’s no Falling Slowly.
Falling Slowly carried Once. Its rawness and intensity underscored the protagonist’s rage as well as his undeclared feelings for his writing partner. Lost Stars lacks emotional weight. Dave/Adam Levine will have to take his shirt off while singing it to make it memorable. Greta, who comes from the old school singer-songwriter tradition, would not like that.
In short, if you’re going to do a movie about the redemptive power of music, better make sure the music is worthy. Other than that Begin Again works, and we like how it skirts the corny fake-romantic turns that make movies of this sort so irritating.
Rating: Recommended. It’s not often we hear melodies rather than explosions at the cinema these days. And if you haven’t seen it, look up Once.