war_storyWith recent headlines of journalists killed or under threat to be killed in war zones, the trauma of the conflict for those journalists, who are civilians, remains an under-explored theme on film. War Story tells the story of the aftermath of a journalist’s killing. After covering a conflict in Libya, photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) is left to mourn the loss of her partner during that assignment. The movie picks up after she has left Lybia. The information is sparse, one has to piece it together as the plot develops slowly and quietly. The mood is sad and somber but there is little in the way of dialogue. The camera zeroes in on a weathered Keener, trying hard to convey physical and emotional pain in silence, as she makes her way across the Mediterranean Sea. She’s headed to Italy to meet her mentor and former lover Albert (Ben Kingsley).

Lee arrives in Sicily and moves into a hotel where she has stayed in the past. After a few days of confinement in the familiar hotel room, where she tries to heal from mental wounds via nostalgia and physical wounds with time, the grief-stricken Lee ventures out and quickly feels the pull toward another crisis, the situation of Arab immigrants in Italy. She thrives in conflict and finds a reason to move forward, throwing herself into a cause through the character of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), who is in need of help as she is not only trying to escape the country that so virulently rejects her, but she is also seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. All of this gives pause to Lee, who would rather move on to the next assignment than deal with her own tragedy. The camera lingers on Lee for extended periods of time, even when she is carrying a conversation with somebody else. Although the performance is strong something is missing, the attempt at storytelling through images falls short of its ambition, as the camera feels almost randomly placed in many scenes.


The most flagrant cinematic failure arrives when Lee gathers her strength to finally meet with Albert, a former mentor who was with Lee when she had traveled earlier as a journalist to a war-torn region. The moment is crucial, much of the film has been leading up to this, but when they meet the camera pans a large room full of books and hangs back for about half of their conversation. Two excellent performers are reduced to small, expressionless shadows sitting across from each other at a distant table. If director Mark Jackson’s poor composition choice had not been apparent earlier in the film, here is his biggest misstep. It was fine that Lee suffered in silence from much of the film, but to reduce revelations to expository dialogue in a scene where not even the expression of the actors matter only highlights the film’s weak visual storytelling. Jackson almost seems desperate to pack in information for the short time Kingsley is on screen, an artifice to drive the point home on the addictive nature of the job and the cautions against it. “You’re a woman. An amazing woman who has decided to go into war zones and take pictures. You’re a bit crazy to want to do that. And I think now you’re too crazy to stop.”


The culminating scene does not bring the story full-circle; rather, the bifurcated nature of the issues presented here: individual loss, grief and a feeling of impotence after losing a loved one in a war, along with the struggling North African immigrant in continental Europe fit together uncomfortably. The treatment of characters is then superficial. As much as the director tries to go beneath the surface with his camera work it all comes across as flat and staid.

War Story is the second feature film by Jackson.  With a mysterious and atmospheric mood, earlier in the film, Jackson successfully establishes a meta-narrative showing the anguish the photographer is incapable of articulating through words. The gradual narrative of the story is supposed to impart the impact of loss, tragedy and war. However, the pace is so slow and the narrative so subtle as to be nonexistent. It makes for lots of sleep-inducing moments rather than creating the potent moments these politically charged subjects call for. Instead, there are some superficial moments, like when Lee ignores the constantly ringing phone in her room, which could be a sign of grief, avoidance, trauma or all of the above. Jackson takes on themes that may have been too big to cover in one film, from journalism in war-torn areas, to segregation and the humanitarian crisis of immigrants in the global North, to abortion — the ideas are all too large to sustain as the film just feels incomplete.

Ana Morgenstern

War Story runs 90 minutes, is in English and Italian and is not rated (expect heavy themes). It opened in the Miami area at The Tower Theater this Friday and plays until Aug. 28. It’s also available on VOD. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

beginagain_1sht_final_v2[1][1]Sometime past the halfway point of Begin Again, ex-record executive and occasional drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo) tells his new discovery, the British singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), something that could very well be the driving force behind director John Carney’s aesthetic. “Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom.” In both this new film and his highly regarded 2006 movie, Once, Carney, a musician himself, leans so heavy on music for narrative, song lyrics mark moments of transformation in his characters’ lives that transcend exposition.

With Once, Carney brought together a self-conscious yet sincere Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and an animated yet awkward Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová). Though they get to know each other in conversation, they actually seem to fall in love through song. The film collected one of the better-earned Oscars for original song in many years because the ballad “Falling Slowly” was, unlike most original song nominees, so much more than accompaniment to an end credits sequence or a musical interlude in the film’s action. It resonated through the film on a narrative level while transcending the traditional narrative of a film. Carney granted the songs in Once, which were written by the movie’s leads, space to move the narrative by allowing them to unfold from the musicians for long sequences, like the equivalent of musical numbers. Once stands as one of the most subtle musicals of the post-musical era.


Eight years later, Carney returns with a film built on a similar formula, this time in New York City and presenting two different stories of love, one of loss and another of redemption, which unfold against a slight critique of the music business. It’s not Once, which was set in Dublin and focused solely on the couple, but it still has elements that will charm many fans of Carney’s previous film. Despite a polish far removed from the low-budget intimacy of Once, at its core, Begin Again maintains the essential formula that made the former film beguiling. Many of the film’s turning points happen via song lyrics. Upon first-listen, Gretta’s music gives Dan renewed hope for his role in the music industry. Gretta also learns of the infidelity of her boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) a few seconds into hearing a new song he has just recorded.

As much as the film is about this young creative couple in turmoil, Begin Again spends equal time following Dan, a divorcé who has lost faith in contemporary music (an early scene of him talking back to demo CDs and throwing them out his car window is hilarious in its take-down of pop music tropes). More emotionally crippling, however, is how little faith he has in becoming the father his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) needs. BEGIN AGAINThe gap between his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) has entered a place of ambivalent malaise, as the parents have resigned themselves to making a go of a sense of family for the sake of Violet, even though the father moved out of the house long ago. Gretta becomes less a love interest for Dan than a comrade in disheartened arms. She also has her own sense of cynicism about the world of music, as she has no interest in sharing her autobiographical songs outside of her former collaboration with Dave, who seems on his merry way to pop stardom without her. However, Dan and Gretta share a similar passion for music that will prove hard to keep them from working together.

It’s an easy relationship to buy, as within the film’s first few minutes, both the director’s and actors’ affection for these characters shines through, making the movie an easy film to ride along with and fall for, scene after scene. At the start of Begin Again, the morose, freshly-heartbroken Gretta hesitantly takes the stage at an open-mic night at the coaxing of a less shameful musician friend Steve (James Corden who frequently lightens the film’s mood as perky comic relief). She sings a song that not so subtly alludes to suicide by subway while most the bar’s patrons talk over it. Dan, however, seems captivated, and when the song, entitled “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” arrives at its quiet end, he’s the only one applauding. Just why is revealed in drawn-out flashback sequences, as we learn of both Gretta and Dan’s personal baggage leading up to their meeting in separate sequences. Though these Groundhog Day-like narrative turns might sound gimmicky, it works to keep the film’s sprightly pace and speaks to how important experiences are to the enchantments of a song that comes along at the right time. (L-R) KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and MARK RUFFALO star in BEGIN AGAINThough the song is a dreary affair, Dan is ripe to receive it after a rough day where he forgets Violet’s age, gets beat up in front of her for running out on a bar tab and is fired from his record label by his former business partner Saul (a slick and elegant Mos Def). By the time he arrives at the open-mic performance, Dan is primed to get lost in Gretta’s downer of a ditty. Despite the fact that she is only up there lightly strumming an acoustic guitar, he can hear and— in what may be too precious a fantastical representation— actually see an invisible arrangement, as instruments start playing themselves behind her spare picking and silky voice. Dan eventually convinces her to make a record with him, outdoors with the ambient din of New York City as just another element of her songs. Several songs unfold over the course of the film that show Gretta growing as a confident bachelorette while finding her voice. Meanwhile, Dan regains his personal confidence in both the industry and as a father and provider.

If there’s one thing lacking in Begin Again it lies in the strength of the songs, this time written by pop music songwriter Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals and writer of hits for the likes of musicians from Santana to Boyzone. Outside of the film’s narrative context, Alexander’s songs come across as a tad saccharine and lyrically heavy-handed. That they work within the film, however, stands as testament to Carney’s filmmaking talent. There’s heart and humor between the film’s two leads, and the dialogue never feels forced. That their relationship never becomes romantic reveals a strength of their devotion to their music project, and the importance of their own private pasts, once again consistent to the dimension of the presence of baggage and experience that informs the music.

Though Carney is working with recognizable actors and high-profile musicians (including a scene-stealing CeeLo Green) celebrity never overshadows the film’s essential allure. (L-R) KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and ADAM LEVINE star in CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE?Levine’s character never has to do much to be the unlikable louse who breaks his partner’s heart. After their breakup, he grows facial hair, from awkward mustache to full-on bushy beard. As he grows both more obnoxious and distant, the facial hair becomes a grander barrier. Knightley, who also does her own singing, infuses Gretta with a natural, fragile charisma that never betrays the character’s strength as a confident musician.

The director juggles the characters well for the duration of the film, and the complexity of multiple storylines merging never throws the drama off balance. As befitting the abstraction of music as narrative element, Carney prefers working in montage to move the film’s action along. There must be about 10 montage sequences in the entire movie. Even without musical accompaniment, the film’s editing features cuts pregnant with action left off-screen but still resonant in the characters’ growth and behavior, as if every second of character development matters, even the moments off-screen. As in Once, Carney employs handheld camera that never feels jarring. It brings an earthy quality to the film that brings the audience closer to the characters. In the end, it’s all about intimacy and nothing captures it better than shared musical experiences, even if the songs can sometimes sound silly.

Hans Morgenstern

Begin Again runs 104 minutes and is rated R (for swearing). It opened in South Florida on Wednesday, July 2, at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach, Miami Beach
AMC Aventura Mall, Aventura
Cinemark Palace, Boca Raton
Carmike Parisian 20 at City Place, West Palm Beach

For screening information in other cities, visit the following link. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I love musicians. Many of my friends are musicians. I was once a student of music, and I have spent a couple of decades interviewing musicians. Musicians are a certain breed of personality. Their preferred form of communication is music. It’s how they “talk” to their public as well as one another. So when something disrupts that communication, be it life-altering illness, infidelities, the care of their children or anything else in life, guess where the priority remains?

A Late Quartet captures the tension between life and music for the members of a quartet who are going on playing together for nearly 25 years to global acclaim. The quartet’s signature piece, Beethoven’s Opus 131 is not incidental. Early in the film cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) introduces the piece to his class of students with the opening lines of TS Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” A highlight being the other-dimensional opening lines Eliot was so great at composing: “Time present and time past are both present in time future.” Peter also emphasizes the complexity of the piece and how it contains not a single pause. Indeed, a lack of pause and consideration for others in life is the fault of the very quartet that plays the piece. They spend more energy trying to continue to play together, despite Peter’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, and the failing marriage between second violin player Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and viola player Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), who still has feelings for first violin player Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) than tending to their issues. And that does not cover half the quartet’s problems. A sexy Flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi) offers Robert more moral support for his ambitions that his own wife. The Gelberts’ daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is following in her parents’ footsteps as a talented violinist, but she is also the embodiment of childhood neglect to her parents’ career. “You think I had fun … taking a back seat to a violin and a viola?” she yells at her mother when tensions truly begin to spill over toward the end of the movie.

At one point, Peter reminds Daniel of their motto, “What happened to, ‘No compromise. Quality above all’?” Well it may have made them the successful musicians they are now, but at what price to their own humanity? The film explores that with a tragic sort of delight, as the musicians’ worlds seem to dissolve around them on the eve of the quartet’s 25th anniversary. This is not a condemnation the artists’ dedication, but emphasizes the complexity of an artistic life, and why no one, no matter where the devotion lie, should ever forget the impact it has around those nearest and dearest to them. The most special artist is the one who can still raise a happy family and succeed in his or her career. Those stories are even fewer than that of this fictional, world-famous quartet. Even Sonic Youth’s  Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who married in 1984, and kept their band afloat for nearly 30 years recently divorced. Though David Bowie raised a happy, creative film director as a single father, he quietly retired from music to play a father to his daughter with his second wife of nearly 20 years, Iman. Even to legends like Sonic Youth and Bowie, something must be compromised.

The drama of A Late Quartet is a subtle thing to grasp, and though the acting is superb— as can be expected with a cast led by Walken, Hoffman and Keener— the film takes some time to grab the viewer’s attention. The characters’ privileged Manhattan living in the upper echelon of the classical music world might be hard to relate with for some. When things start falling apart and Robert wonders aloud whether Peter’s Parkinson’s will finally give him a chance to play first violin, one wonders if these selfish people deserve pity or spite. Though it takes awhile, pathos does arrive in no small part to the heart the actors have invested in presenting their portraits of these artists on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a beautiful moment of music and personality construction when Peter is once again with his class demonstrating how he once played for Pablo Casals. The tension of his diagnosis weighs heavy in the air as the drama of his anecdote unfolds, and he demonstrates on his cello.

The directing by Yaron Zilberman is rudimentary and works for the service of the drama in the script written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman as well as the relationships among these characters. The details some might nitpick are too small to fuss over. But the film works as a tense character portrait of the complexities and faults of the musician’s personality. The actors dive in extraordinarily. When Robert walks out on stage at the start of the film, Hoffman exhibits a graceless waddle as he grips his instrument’s neck, capturing the irony of the musician’s lack of grace in contrast to his enchanting playing, a physical manifestation of his clumsiness in life versus that in his music. Walken is also superb, capturing the tension in his diagnosis and his desire to not just play his cello, but play it with the justice the piece requires.

I acknowledge that I often go into spoilers in my reviews with little warning, but if it helps in the pleasure of enjoying a good movie, I’d rather have some extra insight to offer for the viewer’s pleasure. But, without going into to much detail, I know some might feel let down by the film’s ending, which seems too neat a compromise for these characters. However, keep in mind that these are musicians. It makes sense that they should seem to make amends on stage. The music transcends their need for earthly reconciliation as illustrated by the actions leading up to the performance. Who knows how much longer it will last after they step off stage, and the film’s end credits have rolled on? But that’s a testament to the detail both the director, writer and actors have infused into this film with, as its pleasure lies in understanding the distinct differences in this human world of interacting through music versus the daily grind of living one’s life.

Hans Morgenstern

A Late Quartet is Rated R (language and sex) and runs 105 minutes. It opened this Friday in the Miami are at the following theaters: the AMC Aventura Mall 24 in Aventura, the AMC Sunset Place 24 and Miami’s Tower Theater. It opens in several other venues in West Palm Beach this coming Friday. To see where it is playing or going to play in your part of the states, visit the film’s homepage above and enter your zip code.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)