Film review – Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

If Inside Llewyn Davis is the poisonous view of the hardest and most demoralising sides of the music industry, with all its rejection, squalor and misery, then Begin Again is the antidote. They are from different sides of the tracks and share nothing but a basic premise and the same city (New York) in common.

Begin Again tells the intertwining stories of two people whose lives have been ruined by the music industry. Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has been sacked from his own record company by co-founder Saul (Mos Def) and has taken to the bottle to avoid finding focus in his life, much to the detriment of his relationship with daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He has a chance meeting in a bar with Gretta James (Keira Knightley), who has plenty of talent but no stage presence or confidence. He decides she has enough potential to turn into something more than just a singer at an open mic night, though her reluctance is powered by the recent breakdown of her relationship with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), now seemingly destined for stardom.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Begin Again falls down where films like Inside Llewyn Davis or Carney’s last film Once succeeded for the simple reason that the songs and performances simply aren’t as good. Keira Knightley has found herself in an awkward situation. Her fame ultimately puts her as an a-lister actress and celebrity, with the ability to elevate an average film to blockbuster status due to her past successes. As a viewer, subconsciously there is an expectation that her ability as a musical performer should match that. Sadly, the studio has had this well in mind and ensured, through post-production, that her voice and entire backing track is polished to perfection, removing the intimacy seen in Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s raw but powerful performances in Once. It’s an inevitable source of frustration as it is evident she has some talent, though what that is feels hard to decipher.

Ruffalo’s performance lacks conviction and the feeling that he has been really scorned by the music industry never fully materialises. Adam Levine plays his part coolly, almost as an exaggeration of his real-life personality (or what it is perceived to be). Steinfeld provides another assured performance in her supporting role, even though she doesn’t look like she’s ever picked up a guitar before. James Corden makes the most of his limited screen time.

It’s disappointing that overall this film fails to deliver on so many levels. The one thing it will be remembered for is the track “Lost Stars”, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 2015. It is the one song here that stands up to those around which Once was built. However, one song does not a musical make; it is very unlikely this will follow its predecessor onto the West End and thus it is destined to be forgotten.

Begin Again is available for purchase now, or can be streamed on Netflix.

The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)

Billy Wilder’s 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch has proved to be one of his most popular films. It was his first pairing with Marilyn Monroe and whilst it fails to hit the peaks of 1959’s Some Like It Hot, it still has enough redeeming qualities to warrant its popularity.

The film concerns married man Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), who is experiencing what psychologists refer to as the seven year itch – after seven years of marriage many experience discomfort brought on by extended monogamous relationships. Richard becomes infatuated with a girl (Monroe) living above his apartment whilst his wife and child visit Maine for the summer to escape the Manhattan heat. As he tangles himself up in his own mind his tendency to daydream takes over, a matter exacerbated by his increasing closeness to his new friend.

Marilyn Monroe is a breath of fresh air when she first appears.

It is these daydreams that provide most of the laughs. As the film progresses they become more surreal and the window into Richard’s mind becomes a portal to a place full of fear and panic. Ewell’s performance can feel a little forced at times and the actor fails to endear Sherman to the viewers, an essential requirement when we’re watching him attempt to commit adultery. Perhaps his acting was better suited to the Broadway stages where the subtleties of emotion need to be overplayed to ensure the back row sees it. After an estimated 900 performances in the role it would be hard to unlearn that. This would ultimately prove to be his defining role.

The script is the perfect platform for Monroe to unleash the naïve and bubbly persona that served her so well throughout her career. It works on this level and she’s a breath of fresh air when she first appears. 

A discussion about this film can’t go very far without mentioning the famous subway air vent scene, where Monroe’s dress flies up in the breeze created by the train passing by underneath. It is perhaps one of the most iconic shots in any film ever released. It doesn’t quintessentially add or detract from the story itself, so if you’re watching just for that scene you may be a little underwhelmed. Indeed, you may never see what you hope for – the famous full-length photo the world is familiar with was taken at the original shoot, which was unusable due to crowd commotion. The scene later had to be recreated in a studio. At no point does the full-length shot appear.

The film was actually name-checked in Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s previous film released a year earlier. It’s hard to resist comparing the two films. Side-by-side, this doesn’t really come close to the magic audiences had seen when Audrey Hepburn wowed the world by pairing her timeless beauty with a sublime acting performance. Monroe was never an actress of the same calibre as Hepburn and this isn’t helped by a much more shallow script.

The Seven Year Itch is available to buy on Blu-Ray now.

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)

Interesting fact – Woody Allen has directed and written a new feature film every year since 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. And that break – that one year break – was well deserved. Between 1972 and 1980 he managed eight feature films in a purple patch of creativity that included Manhatten, Bananas, Annie Hall, Sleeper and Love and Death. This industrious approach to churning out films from the Woody Allen cinema factory of course means that some releases are better received than others. Going to see his latest film doesn’t seem to guarantee you’ll see a great film.

In recent years, though, he has had a critical and commercial renaissance, which started with 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, and he has been introduced to a whole generation of cinema-goers. Indeed, watching his recent films they all seem to be of the same universe. The fonts and designs used for the title sequences are always identical (though admittedly he has used the same Windsor font for around forty years now). The music is of a similar style, albeit usually stylised to the area in which the film is set. The locations have tended towards beautiful, luxurious areas of famous European cities with histories rich in romance, barring 2009’s Whatever Works and last year’s hugely successful Blue Jasmine. It’s almost like Woody Allen is using his films to enjoy these beauty hotspots.

So, whilst seeing Woody Allen’s latest might not guarantee you’ll see a great film, it will guarantee you’ll see a quintessentially Allenesque film, one you will immediately recognise as belonging to this most unique of directors.

And so it is with his latest.

Magic In The Moonlight stars British heavyweight Colin Firth and relative newcomer Emma Stone, both of whom are highly gifted and currently very sought-after actors. The story centres around Firth’s Stanley Crawford, a world-renowned magician whom we join as he journeys to the French Riviera to witness and debunk Stone’s Sophie Baker, a self-professed spiritual medium who Stanley is sure is as fake as the rest of her peers.

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Firth plays the stubborn Stanley perfectly. The character is a dislikeable person, one we see slowly fall for a girl many years his minor but refusing to admit it, doubly bad as he has a fiancé-in-waiting back home. Even when Sophie starts to show feelings for him, he rebukes her in the most insulting of manners. Firth is an inherently likeable person so that he pulls this is off so well is to be admired. Emma Stone, too, is brilliant in playing a seemingly innocent girl with an extraordinary gift. The play between these two highly talented actors is something to behold. Throw into the mix a fantastic support cast including Eileen Atkins and Simon McBurney, some beautiful scenery and a well-crafted script and you have another excellent entry into the Allen catalogue.

In many ways, I do wonder what the enduring fascination with Allen is. Especially in the UK where, in light of Operation Yewtree and a seemingly never ending chain of accusations and court cases against the stars of yesteryear, any kind of indecent relationship will be dragged through the press. It seems decidedly odd that Woody Allen’s popularity remains completely intact. There doesn’t seem to be any resolution on the horizon for his ongoing feud with Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter, who claims she was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. It seems bizarre that so many renowned actors would flock to be involved with his work with this hanging over his legacy. Yes, I understand that we should treat people as innocent until proven guilty, but that is frankly not the society we live in, where often trial by media is the preferred route. I don’t truly believe that these films are so good they overpower his potential loss of reputation if these allegations were true. Perhaps it’s just that his reputation as an excellent director precedes him and people are desperate to work with him as he sits in the twilight of his career. Who could turn down the opportunity to work with a bonafide legend of cinema?

So, is Magic in the Moonlight as good as Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine? Probably not. But it is a uniquely Allenesque picture and one that certainly won’t go down in the future as a flop; yet another water tight story told brilliant by one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.

Magic in the Moonlight is on release at selected cinemas in the UK now.

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Lilting (Hong Khaou, 2014)

Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a film of understated power. Watching it is a deeply moving experience.

The plot deals with the unexpected death of a young man played by Kai, and the toll this takes on his lover Richard (played by Ben Whishaw) and his mother Junn (played by Cheng Pep-pei). The snag in the situation is that the mother is unaware that her son is homosexual, and the situation is made more complex by the fact that Richard intends to respect his lover’s wish to keep this secret whilst at the same time ensuring Junn is looked after, which raises issues that are extenuated by the fact they have no common language. Or rather, they don’t until Ben hires a translator, though this gives rise to as many issues as it resolves.

This is a complicated storyline to see through and could easily fall flat with poor performances. Junn is brilliantly stubborn and cold, though we can see a heartbroken woman underneath the façade. Whishaw’s turn is an absolute revelation and every quirk adds to the belief that he is completely ripped apart by the situation.

A large amount of praise also needs to be heaped on the unwillingness to shy away from the fact we are seeing a homosexual relationship. So many times in films we see same-sex relationships implied but rarely do we see the playful intimacies and passion of such a relationship. This isn’t to say that there are any gratuitous sex-scenes, but the story called for the young men to be very much in love and the closeness is not shirked. Hopefully this is something we will see more of in the future.

Lilting is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a stunning study of the emotions people go through when someone they are close to dies with a secret, and the difficult resolutions they find to deal with the loss. If you get a chance to see it, then grasp it with both hands.

Lilting is out now in selected cinemas across the UK, and will be released in the USA on 26th September 2014.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

Once in a while a film comes along and disappoints you so much you forget what ever made it appeal to you in the first place. The last time this happened to me was when I saw INLAND EMPIRE back in 2006. I was desperate to see it and couldn’t find anyone to go with me so walked on my own for over an hour to the nearest cinema showing it and watched the whole three hour spectacle unravel on my own. Actually was it six hours? It felt like it. And so it was with the latest Jarmusch film. I’m just sorry I forced the experience on my equally underwhelmed fiancé.

The film sets its pace deliberately slowly. Opening with a spiralling bird’s eye camera shot of our two main characters – played by Tom Hiddlestone (Thor, War Horse) and Tilda Swinton (The Beach, We Need To Talk About Kevin) – it matches the evocation of the interspersed antique record player. It’s intelligent camera work. We’re definitely spinning at the lower end of the 33 rpm spectrum, but it sets the scene pretty well with the slow and dirty rock music that accompanies it.

The story goes something like this. Our central characters (named Adam and Eve) are both vampires, they need blood to stay alive and source it from a sort of underground illegal blood trading market. Oh and Adam is also a reclusive rock star. And Eve has the power to touch things and say how old they are (I think this was sourced from the Superuseless Superpower blog, but I can’t be sure).

John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Alien) plays a very old vampire who it turns out is actually most of the greatest writers in the history of humanity. Chekov from Star Trek is Adam’s roady. Felix from Casino Royale makes an appearance. Later in the film, Eve’s younger sister arrives on the scene but it’s ambiguous as to exactly how old she is. I mean, there were long periods of the film where there was no dialogue and as I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and I got to wondering how old she really was. If Adam and Eve are about 600 years old and look like they’re about 40, she looks like she’s about 20 so must be about 300, but yet she acts like she’s about 14. So, do vampires mature at an extremely slow rate too? I don’t get it.

Anyway it rambles along for about two hours before getting to the point where something happens and they go abroad and have to look for new sources of blood. As my fiancé pointed out, it’s the sort of thing that would usually take about 20 minutes to develop in most films. It’s deliberately paced excruciatingly slowly and sometimes it works, but mainly it falls short.

It’s admirable that Jarmusch is bold enough to stick to his guns and allow conversation to take centre stage as he did so well with Coffee and Cigarettes, but this isn’t a film about having a conversation whilst smoking and drinking coffee. It’s a story about a rock star vampire, his wife who has a super power, a man who is secretly almost every important writer ever, Chekov from Star Trek and a seedy underground market for blood. Isn’t this a recipe for a really quite exciting film?

No. Apparently it isn’t.

Only Lovers Left Alive is out in UK cinemas on 21st February 2014.

Casse-tête Chinois [Chinese Puzzle] (Cedric Klapisch, 2014)

I have to confess that I saw Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle) at the 2013 London Film Festival and knew nothing about it. It was picked on a whim when I had a gap to fill in my schedule and I wasn’t able to put any research into it beforehand. During the post-film Q&A with director Klapisch, I learned that it is in fact the third installment of what is known as the Spanish Apartment trilogy, following L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Les Poupées russes (2005).

It stars Romain Duris as Xavier, a novelist whose ex-wife and children have moved to New York. The story concentrates on the complicated web of relationships that surround him as he tries to find an apartment, a job and some kind of life. Included in this web are his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly, now with her new husband), his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and her children, his best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) who are trying to have children of their own (with Xavier’s help), and many more bit players, all full of character. It’s a great ensemble cast and it’s clear they had a fantastic time filming together.

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The film is a joy to watch, with laugh-out-loud moments littered throughout. It’s unusual and quirky. It did not matter one bit that I didn’t know any of the background; the characters are well defined and it works very well as a standalone film. The hilarious business meeting where Martine has to speak Chinese, the sham marriage Spanish Xavier goes through with a Chinese girl to become American, and the crescendo where they all come together in one edge-of-the-seat hilarious finale – the balance is spot on. There are some more serious moments too, not least Isabelle’s affair with her au pair, but these tend to (eventually) be dealt with in a light-hearted manner.

It’s probably not going to make massive waves outside France, which is a shame because there are some lovely romantic comedies being made in that country at the moment and they deserve a little more attention. It may well also be the last installment in the series, with the director alluding to the fact it was difficult to convince some of them – especially Tautou – to come back for the third chapter.

I’d recommend it if you fancy a humorous and whimsical journey through someone else’s very complicated problems and need an emotional lift. It certainly won’t disappoint you.

Casse-tête chinois is released later in 2014 in the UK.

Watch the trailer here.

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The 7:39 (John Alexander, 2014)

Sometimes you watch a show on TV with no prior knowledge of the content, with no preconception of what is coming. Usually when you do this, you’re left disappointed and quickly switch over or find yourself checking your phone at decreasing intervals. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a gem, a diamond in the rough. So it was with the gripping BBC two-part romantic drama The 7:39.

Starring David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) and Sheradin Smith (Legally Blonde), with supporting roles from Sean Maguire (Eastenders) and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), the story tells the chance development of an affair between Carl (Morrissey) and Sally (Smith), who catch the same eponymous commuter train. Both unknowingly in a rut in their life at home and at work, they quickly find an unlikely spark between each other and grow closer through the increasingly precious time they spend together en route to work.

Carl has a lot more to lose. He is married with two teenage children and has an exceptionally supportive wife (Colman), but yet he is the driving course behind the forbidden relationship. Sally is engaged to her overprotective fiancé Ryan – brilliantly portrayed by Maguire – who is hellbent on arranging the perfect wedding and seemingly attempting to smother every aspect of Sally’s life, though only out of love and devotion.

It is a sign of excellent writing by David Nicholls (One Day, Starter For 10), matched by perfect performances by the highly talented cast, that we quickly find ourselves rooting for Carl and Sally. Seeing them play out this despicable action, knowing they’re on a collision course to devastate everything they know and love, I was surprised that when the chance arose I was on the edge of my seat willing them on to go for it. It is a deed we hope we would never be subjected to by a loved on – or even worse commit ourselves – yet the reasoning is portrayed fully without ever needing to be spelled out. Of course, the subject matter has divided audiences, but that is the sign of a powerful work of art.

It is wonderful that there is such high quality drama being produced in the UK and that there is an outlet for the all-British cast to excel on prime-time television. It could easily have had a successful cinematic release and wouldn’t have looked out of place on the big screen. Hopefully it is the first of many more of its ilk.

The 7:39 is available to watch for free on iPlayer and Sky On Demand until 14th January 2014 and is released on DVD on 10th February 2014.

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