Begin Again

 

This light rom-com with (mostly) great music and (mostly) good-looking people has a couple of surprises. (These are not significant spoilers, so read on.) First, Keira Knightley is a decent singer. And, second, the relationship between her character and Mark Ruffalo’s does not go the way one might expect.

Greta James (Knightley) is the tag-along girlfriend of singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). She accompanies him to NYC to kick off a new record deal. Dan (Ruffalo) is a record company exec who has lost his mojo—he can longer launch a hit artist. He hears Greta sing and wants to record her music.

Dan is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). When Dan meets Greta, she has just left Dave after watching his reaction to a newly recorded song he plays for her. (She intuits that he has cheated on her while recording in LA.) So the scene is set for them to hook up, no? No. Both are focused on the music. (Although some of their time together is a bit flirtatious.)

Dan comes up with the idea to record Greta’s songs all around New York. Get a couple of good mikes and a laptop and go. Outside. On sidewalks. In alleys. In subway stations. Sidemen include Greta’s friend Steve (James Corden) and Mark and Miriam’s daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).

Dan is old school. An early scene in the film shows him listening to CD’s by new artists while driving through Manhattan. Most are generic rhythmic pop. Dan is so disgusted by what he hears, he tosses most of them out the car window.

Adam Levine of Maroon 5 (and “The Voice” TV show) is a passable actor and is the movie’s best singer. Another Voice star Cee Lo Green has a small part in the film.

Begin Again is an R-rated movie that could easily have been rated PG-13, except for some bad language. There’s no sex, nudity or drug use. Why would writer/director John Carney (creator of the beloved 2006 film Once) feel the need to keep his movie off-limits to romance-minded teens?

Knightley and Ruffalo are fun to watch together. Begin Again is not a typical musical, but music is central to the film. There’s much to enjoy here.

Captain Phillips

I agree with the blurb on the TV spots—Captain Phillips IS one of 2013’s best films. Tom Hanks turns in his usual strong portrayal, but it’s the guys who play the Somali pirates who help give the film its realism.

Captain Phillips has the three elements that make a good movie: a compelling story, compelling characters and an interesting way of telling of that story.

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, though some of the actual crew members claim that they didn’t get the love they deserved and blame the real-life Captain Phillips. Also: a movie, even one based on real events, takes liberties with characters, timelines and minor details in its storytelling.

Having issued those disclaimers, I can assure you that Captain Phillips sometimes feels like TV news coverage. (Although, unlike many films based on recent real-life occurrences, we do not see clips of TV news reports of the incident.) With many handheld camera shots, plus scenes filmed in close quarters, Captain Phillips has an air of reality that many similar films do not have.

Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a regular guy from Vermont who happens to have a job as a sea captain. As the film opens, we see him riding to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener) who sends him off to his next trip. He runs a cargo vessel that has to sail in open waters near Somalia. Hanks has great range as an actor, but playing everyman is his sweet spot.

Admirably, director Paul Greengrass also shares the Somali pirates’ backstory. He shows them gathering on the beach, choosing a team and constructing a longer ladder to enable them to board large vessels. During their takeover of the ship and all that follows, the audience comes to know these guys and their motivations. They are not sympathetic characters, but they are not just a bunch of faceless thugs.

Native Somali Barkhad Abdi (now a U.S. resident) plays Muse, the rail-thin leader of the pirate takeover. His machine gun allows him to display some swagger, but his cool helps him calm dissension within his gang of four. Could this unknown be 2013’s version of Quvenzhané Wallis, last year’s awards season darling?

Although you as a moviegoer know in advance that Phillips made it out alive, as with Titanic and Apollo 13, discovering the outcome is not the reason to see Captain Phillips. It’s the journey that each of the characters takes that keeps the tension building right up to the film’s climax. Also, it’s rather cool to see the way U.S. military involvement in the event is depicted.

Sometimes a big star promotes a movie with maximum gusto to generate a decent opening weekend, before ticket buyers figure out that it is not a very good movie. Hanks has been flogging Captain Phillips like crazy in recent weeks. In this case, it is not to salvage a mediocre film but to generate long-term box office. The guess here is that Captain Phillips will have “legs” and that Tom Hanks is in line to get a large percentage of those ticket sales.

In mid-summer, I had only a couple of films on my 2013 “must see” list. Happily, the list has grown in recent weeks. My latest “must see” movie is Captain Phillips.

 

 

Enough Said

Here is an excellent movie for grownups. Two extremely likeable characters fall in love in a movie that has a message for all couples.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced woman who goes to a party at the urging of her unhappily married friend Sarah (Toni Collette). At the party, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini), a divorced man. Eva also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) who becomes a massage client and, in short order, a friend and confidante.

Albert and Eva go out on a date. Neither expects anything special, but they enjoy each other’s company and soon are sleeping over. They have one big thing in common: both have daughters who are about to finish high school and go away to college. This circumstance requires that they interact with their exes.

The message for couples in Enough Said is not to let little things become deal breakers. Those of us who’ve been married for a while know that both partners have to tolerate their mates’ imperfections. For instance, dirty underwear left on the bedroom floor may be an annoyance but not grounds for divorce. On the other hand, when one partner is aware of his/her annoying behavior and makes zero effort to change, that can be a problem.

Eva has scenes with Sarah and her husband Will (Ben Falcone). They nitpick and bicker but manage to stay together.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is totally charming as Eva. She frequently flashes the great smile that her often snarky Elaine (on Seinfeld) shared minimally or, often, sarcastically.

James Gandolfini is just a big, sweet teddy bear as Albert. I had a melancholy feeling watching Enough Said because I knew that it was one of his last roles before his sudden death last June. His performances during the past year in Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone showed promise of a hugely successful post-Sopranos film career. Sadly, that will not happen.

Let me offer a huge hat tip to the woman who wrote and directed Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener. Her dialogue is clever, funny and believable. Her directing is efficient and never overbearing. Honestly, the only thing I dislike about Enough Said is its rather generic title.

If you’re looking for a movie for grownups without violence and peril, escape to the movie house to check out Enough Said.

 

 

 

 

A Late Quartet

A movie about a string quartet? How tedious could that be? In the case of “A Late Quartet,” not tedious at all—this is a lively, energetic movie about a talented group of musicians, performed by a talented group of actors.

You don’t have to be a Beethoven fan to appreciate “A Late Quartet.” There’s plenty of music, but the story is more about the musicians and their passions, musical and otherwise.

Christopher Walken is a recently widowed cello player who is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a violinist who is married to the quartet’s viola player, played by Catherine Keener. Ukraine native Mark Ivanir is the intense first-chair violinist who wants every note played perfectly.

But musicians do not always play every note perfectly. Christopher Walken’s character has a wonderful scene in the film in which he relates a tale about an encounter with violin great Pablo Casals. The point of his anecdote is that a live performance of music reveals personal interpretation.

The quartet has been together for nearly a quarter century when we meet them. The group is upset first by their cellist’s Parkinson’s, then by Hoffman’s character’s desire to make a change to the group. Then come marital issues between the couple and an upsetting romantic choice by the first chair.

Along with the quartet, a beautiful young actress with the unfortunate name Imogen Poots gives a nice performance as the aspiring violinist daughter of the couple.

Director Yaron Zilberman (such an unknown that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) who co-wrote the original script, does an excellent job of making these actors appear to be real musicians. (At least to my non-musician eyes.)

Yes, the story is a bit soap opera-ish, but the cast is strong and the music enjoyable. While “A Late Quartet” is unlikely to move beyond art houses, don’t let Beethoven scare you away from a good movie.