Friday, January 9, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #3: "Begin Again" and the Platonic Love Stories of John Carney

This is the ninth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #4 pick, #5 pick, #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

My best films of the year list probably looks familiar to a lot of people. It consists of a bunch of acclaimed movies which have been awards contenders for quite some time. And then we get to this entry-- not just any entry, but my choice for the third best film of the year. That means it's the bronze medalist in a year of great films. And I imagine many people are thinking the same thing: "Begin Again? What the hell is Begin Again? He put this movie in front of Boyhood for crying out loud!" This is, after all, a film that nobody is talking about. If you've heard any awards consideration for it at all, it's been in the category of best song. So, why have I named it the third best film of the year? Well, let's examine what this movie is about, and why I responded to it so strongly.

Begin Again is directed and written by John Carney, and it's his first feature film since 2007's surprise hit Once. If you haven't seen Once, you should do so immediately-- it is one of the sweetest and simply lovely films and history has been kind to it. It went from being mostly unknown to being turned into a Tony-Award winning musical, and its signature, Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" has been covered numerous times. Because of the love people have for Once, there was a lot of excitement when Begin Again came out, but in the end, it didn't register as well with audiences or critics. It did get mostly positive reviews (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is higher than other Oscar-y films like The Theory of Everything) and even the more negative reviewers, like A.O. Scott in the New York Times, admit the film was enjoyable. But, in all, it seemed like everyone was comparing it to Once. Once embraced its own minimalism; it starred complete unknowns Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, their characters didn't even have names, and it was shot on a rather low definition camera. It felt unpolished, and there was a distinct charm to this-- the whole thing felt like an underdog. But, in Begin Again, Carney had a lot more tools up his sleeve. The unknown singers in the lead roles have been switched out for bona fide stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo (who are both getting Oscar buzz this year...but for different films). The story is a lot more conventional, the camera work much more professional. And then there are the songs-- both films are musicals. In Once, the songs were written and performed by Hansard and Irglova themselves. This time, the songs are penned by much more pedigreed songwriters. It seemed to be Carney's intention to use these advancements and a larger budget to elevate what he was doing in Once, but many seemed to feel that they cheapened the film instead. The roughness of Once went away, but so did its charm and its passion (according to others). As such, the reviews were that the film was good...but not as good as Once.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once.

I can't argue with this--Begin Again is charming, but something is definitely lost now that Carney has more recognition and pedigree. But, Begin Again's polish gives it another perspective that Once could not attain. I think it's unfair to try and compare the films as being one better than the other. To think that they are the same film which can be placed side by side shows a complete lack of understanding of the messages of both films. I think of them more as companion pieces. Through the themes explored in both films, Carney establishes them as being linked together-- a similar story told from a different perspective. And I think viewing one will enhance your opinion of the other.

Both films fit into a genre that I like to call a Platonic Love Story. They're very rare, and Carney probably does them better than anyone. In his platonic love stories, Carney unites two characters who might not be romantically connected, but nonetheless have a certain intimacy. More than that, they need each other. He isolates characters who are currently at their lowest points, and who need each other to raise them from that place. It's a romance of a sort, and it's beautiful to watch. In Once, the guy's songs inspire the girl, and she in turn inspires him to make an album and try to gain recognition. In Begin Again the characters are older and come from a different position. Rather than being on the verge of success, both have already found success and lost it. Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a record producer who at one point was at the top of the game, but has since fallen due to a variety of common hardships (most stemming from his implied alcoholism). Knightley plays Gretta James-- she has just been left by superstar singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, in his film debut) and is dejected. Dan is the one who first realizes the connection. She needs him to recognize her potential and help her create an album that she wants to create. He, meanwhile, needs her because she inspires him in a way he has not been inspired since his glory days. Just like in Once, both characters absolutely need each other, and Carney is wonderful at illuminating the ways friends and colleagues can influence and improve our lives. And I say friends because, while Carney always hints at a romantic relationship, both have other distinct romantic interests-- Gretta still pines for Dave, and Dan still has feelings for his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), so it's never meant to be a romantic relationship between Gretta and Dan. But it's clearly a special one, and a beautiful and passionate one. They are connected by music which, Carney seems to think, is even better than love.

And that is where both Once and Begin Again absolutely thrive. They are both musicals, but more than that, they are about music. And they are about the thrill of actually creating music. They are about how music can bring people together in a visceral way that other mediums simply cannot. It's evident in Once and, while other critics might not agree, to me it is absolutely evident in Begin Again as well. Begin Again starts with characters at their lowest points, and basically chronicles them as they get their lives back on track. And these milestones occur with music. Music helps lift Dan out of his depressive funk, it helps him connect with his daughter (an excellent Hailee Steinfeld) for probably the first time. Music is what helped Gretta and Dave connect, and it's also what causes them to break up (she discovers his infidelity by listening to a love song he wrote and realizing it's not for her). Music helps her get over him by writing a simple and bittersweet song called "Like a Fool," which she leaves as a voicemail message on his cell phone. Music, of course, brings our two protagonists together. There's a particularly wonderful scene where they go through New York, each wearing one headphone and listening to a soundtrack they make up as they walk. It's a beautiful scene-- don't we all wish that we could have our own underscoring like they do in the movies?

And then, of course, there's the album itself. Dan produces an album of Gretta's songs-- the first time she has ever had the confidence to record her own material-- which they record in various locations around the city, capturing the ambient background noise as they go. Along with Gretta, they have a troupe of other musicians and, while their characters are never fully explored, we nonetheless get a sense of their talent and passion. In one particularly funny scene, an accompanist at a children's ballet school (played by David Abeles, who was in the Broadway production of Once) is approached to be a part of the album and quits his job in the middle of playing a scale, so desperate is he for a chance to play actual music. And the scenes of recording the music itself also embrace the ways music can unite us. In one particularly delightful scene, a group of children who happened to be passing by end up joining in on the recording and singing backup vocals. The whole thing is simply a celebration of music and musicians.

And this would all be for naught if the music itself wasn't so good. Begin Again features a great series of songs-- the producers seem to be pushing the Adam Levine-performed "Lost Stars" towards what is a likely Oscar nomination, but the rest of the songs are just as good or better. Not only are the songs themselves good, but the songs are shot beautifully and treated well. They're inspiring, they're emotionally enriching, and, at its best, they elevate Begin Again to moments of true magic. At no point is this more evident than at the beginning of the film. The film opens with Keira Knightley playing at a bar to a largely apathetic audience-- the background chatter distracting while she plays. But as she leaves the stage, the camera pans to Mark Ruffalo, with a manic, slightly disturbing grin on his face. Then, the film backtracks and we see what happened earlier that day (which involves what must have been the worst day in Dan's life-- he was fired from his job, humiliated in front of his daughter, and eventually made it to this bar to, presumably, get quite intoxicated). But he hears Gretta playing her song and, unlike the rest of the audience, takes note. As she plays, we start to hear what he hears-- he's arranging the song in his head. And as he does, the other instruments on the stage start playing themselves. It is pure magic. Just watch this scene. This scene alone would put this movie on my top ten list.

Keira Knightley and her one-woman band

Carney is wonderful at character studies. His characters are, without exception, very natural portrayals, and there's no exception here. He paints with realistic strokes, and brings out wonderful performances in his actors, even when they're not actors. Adam Levine, for example, impressed me. Levine could have played Dave by basically just playing himself, but actually makes the character distinct, and very interesting. Dave is unfaithful to Gretta and is, in many ways, a complete and unapologetic asshole, and yet we don't hate him. When he asks Gretta for another try, she considers it, and we can see why. Levine's performance embraces both sides of Dave--those that make him endearing and those that make him unbearable.

But Dave's not the only supporting character who feels real. As Dan's daughter Violet, Steinfeld gives one of the more realistic portrayals of a teenager I've seen in recent years, considering the caricaturey ways that age bracket is usually written. We can see her hardness-- mostly put on to express her facade of adolescent indifference--but we can also see her fragility, and her eagerness to relate with her emotionally distant father. Then there's Mos Def, who does some great work as Dan's former business partner, now at odds with Dan who he feels is stuck in the times. It could have been a throwaway role-- the corporate and clueless executive who is too focused on money-- but Def allows us to see where this guy is coming from. And then there's James Corden, who plays Gretta's friend Steve-- a side character who nonetheless feels fully realized and provides some much needed moments of levity, especially in the movie's early moments.

But the stars are, of course, Knightley and Ruffalo. Knightley does great work-- Gretta is instantly likable, and has some truly poignant moments (the aforementioned phone call stands out). She's smart, she's talented, she's capable, but she's also emotionally vulnerable. It's so rare to see insecure characters like this portrayed on screen, and Gretta's self doubts are at once unwarranted, and refreshing to see in a feature film. But, despite her good work, you never truly buy that Knightley wrote any of these songs. That is one advantage that Once definitely has over Begin Again-- because the actors wrote all of the songs themselves, they feel effortlessly authentic. Here, Knightley's voice is sweet and her performance is good, but the connection with the songs is clearly not that of their writer.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, is extraordinary. As he proved in Foxcatcher, and as he has proved in numerous films before this year, Ruffalo is one of those rare actors who can elevate absolutely any project that he is a part of. His performance as Dan Mulligan is beautiful. Unlike Gretta, who can more easily acknowledge her insecurities, Dan is completely in denial. He puts on a face of bravado, even in the face of incredible and obvious failings. He can be a jerk, but it's because he feels like he deserves a life of misery. Ruffalo plays Dan as one part anger and one part desperation. As he storms through his former office-- a gesture he feels will be strong and make a statement but is in fact pathetic-- we feel like we're seeing this man fall apart. Despite not, at that moment, having been shown any real positive qualities to this person, we still feel for him. As the film moves along, Dan begins to change-- we see the excited Dan more and more, the one who is an actual force for good and not for self-destruction. We get to see a person in their element. Once again, Carney doesn't paint his characters in black or white, he just shifts our perspective on Dan, and Ruffalo manages to make both Dans feel cohesive. It's a simply beautiful performance that really humanizes the character. He makes him a character you want to root for.

Once was made when John Carney was first starting out. Much like the guy in his film, he was an unknown artist, hoping to make a product good enough to speak for itself and gain acclaim on its merits alone. I've always loved that Once gained acclaimed because of the attention that "Falling Slowly" brought it. That implies to me that, in the world of the movie, the same song likewise brings attention to the guy's album and he finds the success that he is looking for. Once was Carney's big break, and it examined that notion of the artist trying to get ahead. Now, in Begin Again, Carney must examine what it's like to stay ahead once you actually have said success. And for me its examination of its central themes is just as complex and layered as it was in Once. I can't speak to why others have not responded as overwhelmingly to the film as I did. After all, art is subjective, and if people weren't moved by it then there's nothing I can do. But I, for one, found it incredibly inspiring. I left the theater eager to create in a way I had not been in quite some time. Its musings on love and heartbreak and the uniting power of art were incredibly powerful to me. It's a love letter to artists everywhere. Check out this overlooked film and, if you can let yourself be carried by the magic of music, you're in for one of the absolute best movies of the year.

And afterwards, you can sullenly eat some ice cream!

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