Begin Again: A Review

begin againI finally got a chance to see Begin Again tonight, the musical dramedy written and directed by John Carney creator of indy smash Once.  With  the current dearth of romantic comedies I was looking forward to this movie and while it is not terrible I was disappointed.

Trailer:

Cast:

Keira Knightley as Gretta James, a songwriter

Mark Ruffalo as Dan Mulligan, a music producer

Adam Levine as Dave Kohl, Gretta’s ex-boyfriend and a successful musician

Catherine Keener as Miriam Hart, Dan’s estranged wife

Hailee Steinfeld as Violet Mulligan, Dan and Miriam’s daughter

James Corden as Steve, Gretta’s best friend

CeeLo Green as Troublegum, a successful rapper who was discovered by Dan

Mos Def as Saul, Dan’s long-time business partner

 

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Spoiler Alert! I will discuss some details of the movie.

Begin Again has a lot in common with Once.  Both movies are about new artists, one male, one female, that are idealistic and pure believers in music and them creating their first album.

But there are some big key differences.

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First, I’m sorry but the songs in Once are just better.  I did not believe any of the songs in Begin Again were legitimate hits where Once had several including the actual hit Falling Softly (and Oscar winner for Best Original Song) .

The songs in Once were so good they could be used to make a Tony winning broadway musical.  You couldn’t do that with the Begin Again songs, and since the whole point of the movie is that Kiera Knightly’s songs are somehow so brilliant it doesn’t feel genuine.

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Second, the singing isn’t as good.  Mark Ruffalo doesn’t actually sing like Glen Hansard does in Once and Kiera Knightly is not nearly as good a singer as Marketa Irglova.  All of the songs are written with a small range and she still doesn’t sound very good.  Certainly nothing that would make a record executive stop in a drunken stupor and drop all and work with this ‘amazing’ talent.

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In Once the performances are grounded in a type of reality, playing in music stores, homes etc

Third, in Once the ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ are so likable despite not having names.  In both movies they are in love with music and not really each other but it comes off so much more of a real and meaningful relationship in Once.

Part of the problem is that Ruffalo is such a mess that I didn’t like him or find him charming.  In fact, there was a side of me that was nervous for Knightley’s character that he might take advantage of her (borderline creepy persona).  Knightly was bland, niave and kind of preachy about people who actually want to make a career out of music (the shame!). I found her to be a little insufferable.

Begin-Again-Ruffalo

In Once ‘Girl’ has a child which gives her warmth and keeps you rooting for her.  In Begin Again Ruffalo is estranged from his daughter played quite well by Hailee Steinfeld.  When we first meet him he picks his daughter up clearly inebriated.    This makes me instantly dislike him, where in Once I love the characters who are trying so hard for the chance to record.  Ruffalo is an executive who has blown his chance and is fired.  It’s not as motivating a character arc and we don’t see as much growth.

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Fourth, in Once they are shown practicing so they are ready for the big recording session.  They practice outside, in apartments, piano stores etc.  In Begin Again the conceit is that they are going to screw the traditional recording studio and record an album in New York live.

It is an absolutely laughable idea that a releasable album could be filmed in and around the city of New York in one or two takes and with all back up willing to work for free! We officially cross the line into a fairytale with scenes of recording in the Subway and officers ‘catching’ them mid song and them running away.  You can actually get permits to play in the New York Subway but the idea that a band of that size could get all the amps and everything set up and then record a track and then the cops come? Give me a break!

Maybe it isn’t fair to compare it to its younger, fairer cousin but when you have the same director, writer and a nearly identical premise it’s tough not too.  Begin Again is just not as good.  It feels like a lame sequel where they just kind of spew out a weaker version of the original. It’s not offensively awful and people are trying but why settle for sloppy seconds when you can easily enjoy the real deal first course?

The only part that surprised me about Begin Again is Adam Levine as Knightley’s rock star boyfriend isn’t half bad.  In the world of musicians turned actors he is pretty engaging on screen. Granted he is playing a rock star which isn’t much a stretch but certainly other stars haven’t been able to pull off similar feats as well. He has the one good song at the end of the movie (big surprise there!).

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I just wanted a feel good romance and so was hoping at least the characters would be engaging but I didn’t get into it.  The premise was too silly, characters patronizing or unlikable and the songs (a big part of the movie) weren’t very good.  Overall let down…

There is a lot of swearing in the movie but not much else that is offensive.  Not quite as much swearing as in Once (although much of that was in Irish accent which was hard to understand). But I would say Begin Again is adult only because of language.

Clean Content Score- D, Overall Grade- C, not terrible but extremely average.

Movie 50: Tangled

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“I am excited that with Tangled a whole new generation will have a Disney princess experience. I hope Disney keeps up the good work and doesn’t rely only on the brilliance of Pixar.”

That was my thoughts back in 2010 when I saw Tangled.  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Even though it won’t be my #1 movie, I have to admit if I made a movie, Tangled is the type of film I would like to make.

As Disney’s first attempt to make a romantic comedy (which I love. see my defense here),  I love everything about it.  It gets the opposites attract, romantic banter, witty dialogue, action, and terrific characters of a Princess Bride but then it adds beautiful music, tons of humor, gorgeous animation, and one of the great Disney villains.  I watched it again tonight but I really didn’t need to because I pull it out every couple of months and give it a watch.  It’s the best!

The Production-

There are a lot of reasons Tangled works so well and a lot of that has to go down to choices they made in production.  Remember how I said every choice they made in Brother Bear drove me crazy?  This is the exact opposite.

For starters, they went traditional fairytale, updated it a little but not as much as Princess and the Frog.  Most of the updates they chose had to do with making the film appeal more to boys instead of traditional Princess movies, and each of these choices makes it a stronger romantic comedy.

For example, Flynn narrates the film which means we get to see a lot of his character, making the romantic comedy tension all the more palpable and satisfying.  I can totally see Flynn being played by romantic comedy greats like a Cary Grant,  Matthew Mcconaughey, Harrison Ford or even Chris Pratt in Guardians- all suave and debonair but really good at heart. Classic and tough to pull off (Mcconaughey failed many times!)Flynn_Rider

We also get ruffians and thugs which appeal to both girls and boys and they are fabulous.

ruffians and thugs

They were so smart in the script also because Rapunzel is so likable.  She does her best to be optimistic and hopeful while basically being a terrified prisoner.  That is very likable person.  In some ways she is like Cinderella in that way.  She is also the ultimate homeschooler- self educated in every way 😉

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And the villain, Mother Gothel, is one of Disney’s best.  Here Disney had the guts to make a mother evil, and not only that but she uses the very ‘maternal’ nature of mothering to manipulate her daughter.  If you really think about it it’s kind of twisted- brilliantly twisted!!

gothel and rapenuzelI don’t have any proof this but I wonder if they used Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods as inspiration particularly for Mother Gothel.

Into-The-WoodsIn the play Gothel (or the Witch) is even more manipulative and sings a song called Stay with Me to make sure Rapunzel knows how devastated she will be if she is left alone.  Another song is called The Witches Lament and I think you will see similarities between it and Mother Knows Best:

In the Sondheim version she is even kind of bitter with Rapunzel for not appreciating all she did for her.  A true sociopath. You get pieces of that in Mother Gothel with wicked humor I love!

The other thing about Mother Knows Best which makes it amazing is it is just 2 characters on a black background for most of the song and yet I am totally engrossed. That’s impressive!

The music was written by the great Alan Menken so no reason to assume he couldn’t have used Sondheim as an inspiration.  Lyrics are by Glenn Slater who also has a broadway background.

The rest of the songs feel more like The Lion King or Tarzan with a pop vibe but I really love them.

The fact Tangled wasn’t even nominated for Best Animated Film shows what a joke the Oscars really are.  I get why Toy Story 3 would win, and I love How to Train Your Dragon but they only nominated 3 films that year and they didn’t have room for Tangled?  The previous year they nominated 5!

The voice cast is all great with Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Brad Garrett, Ron Perlman, and Jeffrey Tambor.

The Story-

I thought I would try something different for this review.  I found this video- the story of Tangled in 60 seconds and it basically does just that!

Let’s go over a few of the songs.

After our introduction to the story by Flynn, we meet Rapunzel with When Will My Life Begin and it does what Menken and Ashman used to do- like the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast it introduces a ton of narrative within the song, while creating an incredibly appealing lead character.  As an audience we feel connected to Rapunzel quickly.

Next is Mother’s Knows Best which I talked about before.  Flynn arrives and needs to make a deal with Rapunzel to get his satchel of a stolen crown back (classic romantic comedy plot device a bargain, deal, bet, swap gimmick to get story going and force leads to be together).

We also get introduced to Maximus, the rigid Kings guard horse, who is hilarious in his dogged behaviors and determination.

Maximus

Romantic comedies always have engaging side characters and for a story about a thief and a girl in a tower I think they came up with a lot of them and unlike Princess and the Frog they don’t make the movie feel cluttered but are included just enough.

Some of those side characters are the roughians and thugs which brings us our next great song I Had a Dream.  Perfection!

Eventually they break free and end up almost drowning, Flynn finds out about her hair and they finally make it to the lights.

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This scene with the lanterns is one of the best in all of Disney and in 3D it was breathtaking (I saw it twice in 3D and I have a lazy eye so I usually hate 3D!)

We then get a terrific final act with Mother Gothel continuing to manipulate Rapunzel. This Mother Knows Best Reprise is so chilling and well sung by Donna Murphy.

The ending is so well done and just like a good romantic comedy should we want things to work out so badly for Flynn and Rapunzel but it seems hopeless until the bitter end.  Flynn and Rapunzel understand each other better than any other Disney couple and I have more confidence in their marriage being a success.  It’s one of the great Disney couples.

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The perfect way to end a romantic comedy with a couple laughing and kissing!

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I really have little criticism for this film.  As I’ve made abundantly clear in this review I love all the choices they made.  I love the romantic comedy storytelling.  I love Flynn and Rapunzel. I love the side characters and I LOVE the villain.

The music is great, animation stunning especially the lanterns, the humor all works.  I guess if I was going to nitpick I’d say the eyes could have been a little smaller.  That’s it.

For me it is a quick top 10 favorite and probably the Disney I could and do rewatch the most frequently.  I love it!

Overall Grade- A+

Oh and Disney is coming out with Into the Woods at Christmas I believe . Yippee!!