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.

BEGIN AGAIN

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.)

It’s been almost six years since Kenneth Lonergan was supposed to complete his final cut of his follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2000 debut You Can Count On Me for Fox Searchlight Pictures. Margaret clocked in at just over three hours long. The reasons behind the studio’s delay are hearsay, but I read studio bosses ordered the director to make the film shorter or maybe Lonergan did not like the pressure of a deadline, which studios often impose even before a script is finalized. Whatever the case, a bitter battle between filmmaker and studio unfolded that had no winners (Read the “LA Times” article). And there may have just been some winners, including lead actress Anna Paquin who gives the performance of her life (forget her Supporting Actress Oscar® win for the Piano). The director himself might have received praise for his brilliant skill at harnessing the power of his entire cast via his amazing script and the manner he brings it to life via a cinematic craftiness that never seems indulgent, no matter the runtime (Fox Searchlight even tried to squeeze it in for Oscar® consideration). Finally, and most important, patient, open-minded film lovers could have been rewarded by a subtle drama with insight into the difficult nature of being human.

Shot in 2005 and finished in 2008, the year of Slumdog Millionaire, Fox Searchlight seemed to care less about this film and forced it into limbo thanks to legal wrangling with Lonergan. I won’t pretend the studio denied itself a hit bigger than Slumdog because this is one long, stark, low-key film that never compromises its gaze upon the futility of these characters’ attempts to communicate. At the end of 2011, the studio put Margaret out in limited released with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and it quietly flopped at the box office. After all the hype and legal battles, the studio finally responded to concerns over the final cut and released it on home video on DVD as an extra disc in the Blu-ray edition, released just last month.

A bit of vindication arrives for Lonergan in Miami Beach when the Miami Beach Cinematheque hosts his director’s cut version of Margaret in a rare theatrical setting. As a film of dynamic human interaction linked together with beautiful moments of operatic music, this is something you want to commit to in a dark room, away from the pause button. After some distracting moments calling attention to the film’s age during the opening credits (The deaths of producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack have become distant memories, and Paquin has since grown out of teenage roles and made a name for herself in the sex-filled “True Blood” HBO series), the film quickly finds its groove as it riffs on people clashing as they put themselves in the center of their own perceived universes. Nothing like death to shake that up.

The movie’s title comes from the short poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” written by the Victorian-era poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ultimately, the poem states, death is sad because the observer of death will die as well (read the poem here). If you are not familiar with the poem and its resonance within the film’s drama, at some point in the film, an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) at the Manhattan private school of the film’s main character, Lisa Cohen (Paquin), will read it to his class. This occurs deep into the movie, long after one of the most harrowing death sequences committed to film is experienced by Lisa. The movie is a variation of that one statement that lingers over Lisa’s motivation to try to make the bus accident “right:” “I guess it was green,” she says regarding the traffic light a bus ran before running over and killing a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Lisa seems to save the bus driver’s (Mark Ruffalo) job, not to mention clear up her own contribution to his negligence, when she says “I guess it was green” to the traffic homicide investigator at the scene. “I guess it was green” makes for one warped way of twisting her perception of reality, which the audience knows, thanks to a cutaway to the light just before the crash, runs against her statement. The biggest truth of all, however, is death. There is no correcting that finality and the petite mort Lisa suffers as a result of holding the dying woman in her arms. The experience will prove unshakable no matter how Lisa tries to spin her life for the rest of the movie. The awareness of that resonates throughout the entire film and informs the drama to operatic heights.

In order to emphasize perspective, Lonergan always positions his steady camera as if looking at people from the outside, never from the other character’s perspective. He takes it a step further by sometimes offering snippets of conversations from unseen characters, out of frame, totally off topic to the concerns of the main characters. At the police station, when Margaret tries to re-open the case and amend her statement, during a distant establishing shot of the building, you hear someone off camera, in some unseen, out-of-context conversation, say “My fucking cousin stole that shit.” During a slow pan over the high-rises of New York City, you hear a kid somewhere outside, again off camera, say, “It’s ‘Dashing through the snow,’” a meta comment on perception in the film if there ever was one. By allowing us to overhear other inconsequential conversations the main characters seem unaware of, Lonergan is reminding the audience that there are other people in this world with things to say and clarify. Even the honking of car horns in the distance as Monica Patterson lies dying in the street have a significance in showing the audience that life goes on despite one person’s death. To Lisa, a teenager on a journey toward her own fate, it becomes a revelation and an exercise in futility. “There’s people dying in the street!” she yells at her divorced actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) when the mother asks her why she is not showing much interest in the play she will star in and her new boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno).

Margaret also reveals there is something more painful than one-way conversations: none at all. There are those dead-ends in life when people fail to communicate and are left on their own, like Lisa’s schoolmate (John Gallagher Jr.) who has a crush on her but seems too shy to make the right moves. On a night he calls her up to just say hello, she tells him, “I don’t feel like talking.” He responds, “OK,” and they hang up. He breaks down crying, sitting alone on his bed. She then calls the bad boy/drug dealer in school (Kieran Culkin) and asks him to take her virginity. Lisa’s mother shares a similar moment of not breaking through to Lisa, and she too has a cry alone, in their apartment building’s elevator.

Lonergan riffs on this clash of communication, and he always keeps it interesting, as long and seemingly meandering as this movie seems. It falls into a sort of groove. Gluing it together is either applause or the soaring melodies of opera music, as there are cutaways to scenes of Lisa as a PA in drama class, her mother on stage in her play or visits to the Metropolitan opera house. The barriers in the dialogue continue, whether it’s the wall a math teacher (Matt Damon) puts up against Lisa’s sexual advances or the desperate but half-assed reaching out Joan does to her daughter. When Joan attends an opera with Ramon, she leans over to him to say, “It’s beautiful.” He hushes her. It’s a sick but funny commentary that seems to say you must listen to people when they are on stage singing in a foreign language.

Lonergan masterfully weaves the sublime with the mundane throughout Margaret. The opera on stage matters just as much, if not more sometimes, that the opera of life. That is why he often places the music of Wagner and Strauss in other scenes between conversations, when Lisa walks the street in slow motion, obviously alone in her thought. By doing this the director emphasizes the weight of this accident on Lisa without flashing back to it.

When the bus accident occurs early on, it makes for a harrowing thing to behold. Monica is fleshed out even as she lies dying in Lisa’s arms. Lisa talks to her and she learns she shares the same name as Monica’s daughter. Monica bitches about receiving help from strangers if they are not doctors. The horror comes home with Lisa in the form of her blood-splattered clothing and face. “What happened to you?” says her grossed out little brother Curtis (Cyrus Hernstadt) looking up from a video game as Lisa strides to her bedroom. Then she vomits with no sound except for the classical music piece on the film’s soundtrack. She showers in slow motion with blood still splattering off her hair. Though she visits the movies later with some friends, the extra-diegetic music continues from since she vomited. As the music hangs over successive scenes, even when she tries to sit still in the movie theater, Lonergan is preserving the horror of the event earlier in the day. Whatever gruesome quality is captured in that key scene involving Monica’s death is justified, as it only exists as a powerful memory in order to inform the rest of this long movie, and Lisa must bear the trauma and struggle to come to terms with it without seeing a psychologist. It’s a confident, powerful move for Lonergan to skip the hokey flashbacks many lesser directors would resort to.

Toward the end of the film Lisa finds some purpose when she meets Monica’s best friend and power-of-attorney holder Emily (Jeannie Berlin). They join forces to try to find some justice for Monica. A conversation with a lawyer friend of Emily’s (Michael Ealy) turns to almost black humor as the trio try to figure out how much pain Monica was in just before her death. If these people do not hear one another out, how could they pretend to even come close to concluding the pain of a dying person?

When Lisa and Emily finally get together with Monica’s next-of-kin to discuss a settlement with the bus company the conversations are tense and powerful, as discussions turn into a battle of righteousness. In the end, all that seems to matter is what these very different characters seem to deem as “right,” as opposed to the truth, which is really the horror of that accident and its banal finality. The only thing wrong was that this woman was left broken in this teenager’s arms. Lisa seems to try to make some sense of it because she only happens to share Monica’s daughter’s name. But it’s the opposite of coincidence. It is chaos. When Lisa shares this observation with Emily with only good intentions, Emily lashes out: “… this isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!” to Lisa’s shock.

In the end, the film closes on an ironic note, as Lonergan returns to the opera house for a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, a French opera by Jacques Offenbach. Lisa accompanies her mother. As the two divas on stage finally harmonize during the opera’s famous build up in “belle nuit ô nuit d’amour,” Lisa has a quiet but powerful cry. We may all be the central characters of our own private operas, but we will all also die. Someone else will have a say of what our memory is worth to them, and life will go on.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

The extended version of Margaret is rated R and has a runtime of 186 min. It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Aug. 3  at 8 p.m. and plays through Aug. 8, at the same hour each day, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Many probably don’t have a theater as bold as the MBC screening this extended version of the  film anywhere near them. You can always purchase the Blu-Ray/DVD combo, with the extended version on DVD (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Fair warning: DVD is the only format Fox Searchlight has made the extended version available. This is the format the MBC will screen via its up-converting hi-def projector.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It was nice to read the news the other day that Lisa Cholodenko’s hit indie film The Kids Are All Right has swollen to near wide-release proportions this weekend, at the height of summer movie mania, no less.

As big name Hollywood studios continue puking out dreck to fulfill their misconceived illusions of what the average moviegoer wants to watch, it’s nice to see a film that premiered at Sundance get this much attention. A film, no less that has at the center of its story a lesbian couple raising two teenagers who bring in their sperm donor “father” into the mix. As un-relatable as this story might seem to middle America, at the heart of the film is the story of a couple.

Cholodenko, one half of a lesbian couple herself, does an amazing thing with this movie: transcend the couple’s sexual orientation to look at how an unexpected anomaly might interrupt what seems like a stable union. Annette Bening plays Nic, as the obvious head of household, a doctor earning the majority of the income, not to mention pushing her lover and children to task. Julianne Moore plays Jules, the more emotional half, smothering others with her love and subtle manipulation. Both actresses inject their characters with such rich complexity and heart that it would be a shame if the powers that be overlooked either of them come awards season. It’s the first movie I have seen this year that I can say a pair of actresses deserve notice come Oscar® season.

The admittedly dysfunctional relationship gets shaken up when Mark Ruffalo’s free-wheeling sperm donor, a self-made man in the organic food/restaurant biz, steps into the mix. The couple’s curious teen siblings played by Mia Wasikowska (on her way to college with straight As) and Josh Hutcherson (struggling from the shift between middle school and high and high school) dig him up out of nothing more dramatic than curiosity.

The result is a delicate look at how the thin cracks of a lengthy marriage can so easily, yet harshly come apart only to reveal a hidden strength within. The movie speaks beyond sexual orientation and looks at the strength of union between two halves of a couple. It is a rare topic in Hollywood movies, which often hype the falling in love part of a relationship and end it there. But Cholodenko knows where to find the drama in a longterm relationship and raise it to a higher level, which is definitely buoyed by fine performances all around, especially by the two actresses at the heart of the story.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)