Monday, July 28, 2014

Begin Again


Irish writer / director John Carney's Once was one of the cinematic highlights of 2006 for me. The story of a lovelorn Irish busker who meets and falls in love with a Polish pianist on the streets of Dublin, that film's exquisitely anguished tunes were by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also starred. The film was turned into a Broadway sensation, as well. Carney's latest film, Begin Again, also features lovelorn musicians but this time the film's troubled romances are trumped by the movie's amazing exuberance. Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a British songwriter with a lovely, breathy Jewel-like voice, who has been penning songs for and with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), with whom she has been living for five years before they arrive in New York City for Dave's big recording gig. Gretta, not unpredictably, is all support and optimism and so is, predictably, devastated when Dave returns from L.A. and in the most passive-aggressive display I've seen on film in quite a while plays her a song he wrote on the road to another woman. Gretta departs and bunks with her old mate and fellow busker Steve (the wonderful James Corden), who talks her into doing a few minutes at open mike and that's when the magic really begins. In the audience, nursing disillusion and dissolution, is Dan, an A&R man who has been run off from the label he started with friend Saul (Mos Def billed as Yaslin Bey). After Gretta receives a lukewarm reception from Saul, she and Dan concoct a scheme to record her songs -- each one beautiful pop blossoms, both musically and lyrically -- in various sites around Manhattan. They gather a posse of performers and in the grand tradition of old Hollywood musicals "put on a show." Mark Ruffalo as Dan never hits a wrong note though he does not actually perform any  music in the picture. Rufallo is such a reliable actor, and he and Knightley have several wonderful moments in this wonderful film. Their scene with the audio splitter as they walk through the city listening to Sinatra is pure gold. The lesson of this tender picture is:  If you've been hurt surround yourself with people who care about you, make some music and begin again. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Snowpiercer


Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer is a dazzling amalgam of cinematic styles and sensibilities. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer takes place in the near future, after an attempt to reverse global warming freezes most of the life on the planet. Survivors are holed up in various compartments on a perpetual, high-speed train that traverses the globe. The further you move from the rear of the train forward, the greater the splendor of your life. The unwashed hordes in the rear car stage a rebellion under the leadership of grimey idealist Curtis (Chris Evans of Captain America), his idolizing buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell of Jumper) and their aged leader Gilliam (John Hurt) and aided by the intrepid Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and the ginger-headed Andrew (Ewen Bremner). They know they must fight their way to the engine room and wrest control from the train's builder, Mr. Wilford, who undoubtedly would resist the coup. To get the ball rolling, they must enlist the help of "hibernating" junkie / designer Minsoo (Korean actor Kang-ho Song) who will only work if he's supplied with chemical incentives. Once the revolution begins, blood flows and the body count mounts in a most surreal fashion. Bong is best known to me as the director of a fresh and fantastic monster movie from 2006, The Host, which also was an environmental cautionary tale. Like that film, Snowpiercer is a blend of terror and humor, which often works but occasionally is too broad and throws off the tenor of the film. Tilda Swinton, who enhances every film she's in, is marvelous as Wilford's officious spokeswoman Mason, sent to suppress the uprising. This hyper-violent affair is recommended, but is not for the squeamish or those who are averse to moral ambiguity.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Korengal


Journalists and filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were imbedded in an airborne platoon stationed in a grim valley in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2010, they released the riveting and critically acclaimed documentary, Restrepo, about the lives of the members of a combat team. Korengal is the second, and likely last, installment in the series. But, because of the nature of war, those who wage it and those who are sent to fight, the series could be extended indefinitely. Korengal includes footage Junger and Hetherington shot with the soldiers in their mountain encampment and in the villages in the valley from which the film takes its name, post-deployment studio interviews (the faces of each subject is framed in extreme close-up) and other material shot by the troops themselves.Though the sentiments shared by the men -- most of whom also appeared in Restrepo -- are now familiar, their comments about duty and fear are no less compelling. One of the most intriguing parts of the film is a long section toward the middle in which the members of the platoon talk candidly about the rush the get during firefights with the enemy. Admittedly, they say, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the relief skirmishes offer from the stretches of stultifying boredom. But, they add, they have lost members of the platoon to enemy shells and mortars during firefights. Director Junger has written dozens of articles about the bond the trials forge between men and strikes those chords about brotherhood and sacrifice in Korengal. Highly recommended. Strong language but no blood.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


The wonder of Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not in the narrative -- which is familiar -- but in the execution. This, of course, means it will not win Best Picture but it will be lauded for the unquestionable artistry that is on display. The wonder of the movie begins and ends with the amazing Andy Serkis, who carries the picture as Caesar, the leader of a nation of biologically enhanced apes living peacefully in Oakland after humankind nearly eradicates itself by "monkeying around" with viruses and microbes in labs in San Francisco. All of this was introduced in 2011 in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which Serkis, CGI'd down to the wrinkles in his brow, showed us what real acting looked like. It's not about declamation but the expressiveness that resides in gesture. He delivers again in Dawn. The human element in the picture -- kind-hearted envoy Jason Clarke, equally kind-hearted nurse Keri Russell, the distrustful and desperate human leader Gary Oldman, and the bitter and trigger-happy crew member Kirk Acevedo -- while not negligible does not compare to the movie's simian cast -- played by Serkis, Toby Kebbell as the mad and traitorous Koba, Nick Thurston as Caesar's disillusioned and naive son Blue Eyes, and Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan teacher Maurice. Matt Reeves's Dawn overflows with stunning images of apes swinging through the trees, scaling scaffolding, and storming barricades and quite a few quiet moments of genuine tenderness that approach sentimental but do not cross the line. Highly recommended but violent and could be distressing for children.

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