Monday, October 27, 2014

Blu-ray/DVDebut -- John Carney's music-themed BEGIN AGAIN: Lightning can indeed strike twice!

When Once hit theaters and then home video back in 2007, it seemed a revelation: a low-keyed movie about music and a relationship that never pushed or manipulated but blossomed then grew into a stunning tale that climaxes with as moving and perfect a finale in all movie history. Yes, I know: that's quite a statement, but WTF, it's true! The film's writer/director, John Carney, made a couple of small films since then that never saw release over here. But now comes BEGIN AGAIN, a much bigger-budget movie that hit theaters this past summer via The Weinstein Company and comes to Blu-ray and DVD this week (with an early digital download window that began last week). And what do you know? Lightning has most definitely struck again.

Mr. Carney, shown at left, is not simply conversant with the music business. He seems to understand well how it works, how new music is produced, and the difference between mega-produced mainstream-attracting music and the kind that appeals to a niche crowd. He also, I suspect, know that there is sometimes a way in which to enlarge that niche to the point that it almost looks a little mainstream. For the purposes of movie-making, he also understands how to create characters we like and root for and make them seem real throughout, whatever else happens along the way.

If Begin Again is a bit brighter, happier and star-filled than Once, it is also every bit as interesting, delightful and enchanting. Though sometimes threatening to go off into la-la-land feel-goodness, it keeps its footing and by the end more than earns our good feelings. The movie pairs a seemingly washed-up and alcoholic music producer (the wonderful Mark Ruffalo, below) and a novice singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley, above, at her loveliest and most persuasive, with a good singing voice, too) and lets them slowly find their way toward what they both want and need.

These two actors, along with the characters they play, hold the movie together beautifully. We care about them and their problems, and Carney has the sense and talent to guide his characters through water just deep enough to douse but not drown them. And Knightley and Ruffalo parse every situation and then perform the necessary moments with grace and intelligence. They keep us tightly with them all the way.

Music-wise, Carney has his duo come up with some wonderfully creative ideas that are not necessarily bound to work. But in our current climate of anything-goes-but-most-of-it-won't, these ideas and the way in which they are given life, are simply good enough (sometime a lot more than that) to make it all seem possible. In supporting roles, Mos Def/Yaslin Bey (above, left) as Ruffalo's business partner and Cee Lo Green (below), left) as a popular musician whose career Ruffalo has helped create, provide good negative/positive ballast to various situations.

Adam Levine (below, right) makes his movie debut here, and he's not bad at all as Knightley's shallow boyfriend on  the cusp of becoming a huge music star.

Ditto James Corden (below, right), who is even better as our babe's best friend by way of Blighty.

In the family area, both Catherine Keener and Haley Steinfeld (below, left) shine as, respectively, Ruffalo's ex-wife and daughter. One of the nice surprises Carney has in store along the way involves the marital history of this particular husband and wife

It's hard to explain just how slowly and well the filmmaker and his cast manage to capture our hearts and minds. But they do, they do. And then there's that music -- which I expect you'll want to hear again, as soon as possible after you've finished watching the movie.

I do have two caveats. One has to do with the scene in which Ruffalo hears Knightley play solo guitar and sing but imagines an entire orchestra joining in. We don't need the goofy look of instruments magically starting up like something out of Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Just the aural sounds would have been enough. Ditto the end credits, during which stupidly feel-good, tie-up-all-the-loose-ends visuals appear to make sure we know everything ends perfectly. (Seems to me that this last one has all the markings of Harvey Weinstein's interference.)

The strong and joyous expression on Ms Knightley's face at the finale is all any intelligent audience needs to feel fine and take away from this wonderful movie. But someone was intent on reaching the dumb audience, too, I guess, thus trying to turn a smart and larger-than-usual niche movie into a possible mainstream bull-dozer. Dumb, indeed.

Begin Again -- via Anchor Bay Entertainment and running 104 minutes.-- makes its Blu-ray/DVDebut tomorrow, October 28. If you missed it in theaters, don't let it get by you now.

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