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.

Into The Woods (Rob Marshall, 2015)

Into The Woods is the big screen adaptation of the classic Sondheim musical of the same name, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. With a big cast and even bigger budget, it is a film hotly anticipated by fans of musical theatre the world over. So was it any good?

Well, first things first. If you’re thinking of going to see this, you’d better like musicals. If you went to see Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and thought “I wish these songs would stop”, then you’ve got to avoid this. This is a Sondheim musical (he also wrote the music for Sweeney Todd) and the songs really aren’t a patch on his best work. Having been part of amateur theatre groups in my time, I’m familiar with picking up songs quickly and memorising their melodies with just one or two listens. I can’t even hum a single song from this. It’s probably because they’re just relentless. It doesn’t break you in easily either. The first song either was 12 minutes long or felt like it was, with characters weaving in and out of each other’s motifs in a really clever but essentially quite annoying manner. It was just too much.

If you don’t know, Into The Woods is a story that inter-weaves the plots from four classic fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It’s quite clever, although a bit pantomimey at times. However, you have to be willing to go along with the storyline, as with many musicals, and allow yourself to be entertained. As best you can.

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The cast is full of huge stars: James Corden and Emily Blunt play the cursed bakers set a task by Meryl Streep’s evil witch. Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, Chris Pine is the charming but cringeworthy Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman is brilliant as the mother of Jack, and Johnny Depp manages to portray Riding Hood’s Wolf at a notch slightly less creepy than his take on Willy Wonka, despite the first half of the song sounding like he is a paedophile (though this is just a criticism of the quite awful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if I’m honest).

There are some wonderful moments. If you’ve never seen the quintessential male bravado one-upmanship song “Agony”, then Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson do a mighty fine job of it. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are both excellent in their respective roles and continue to impress me as they develop through their careers. Tracy Ullman, as I’ve already mentioned, was another highlight.

My overarching feeling is that I am well-positioned to really like this. One of my guilty pleasures is a good Disney film when I’m feeling down. I’m a fan of musical theatre. I think all of the cast have been brilliant in plenty of other films and this film doesn’t represent a career-lot for anyone. I just left the cinema feeling indifferent and worn out.

It’s well timed because it goes hand-in-hand with Disney’s other big release in Q1 2015, Big Hero 6, which is due out in just under a month and probably has minimal cross-over with the younger target audience.

It is a faithful but watered down version of the stage musical, aimed squarely at the family audience. It retains some of the darkness and some of the magic, but falls short across the board.

Into The Woods is out now at cinemas across the UK.

Esio Trot (Dearbhla Walsh, 2015)

There have been many adaptations of Roald Dahl’s many novels and short stories. Some were great: Matilda, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and, surprisingly, Gremlins (yes, I know*) were all brilliant. Others were just awful (I may just be thinking about Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is frankly beyond creepy and really is an abomination to the source). It was quite a surprise to realise that Esio Trot has never been made into any kind of feature film, though based on the cast and the time slot this aired (6:30pm, New Year’s Day, BBC1), I was expecting a soft and faithful take on what was always a whimsical story. This is exactly what I got.

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This television adaptation stars Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy, an older man who lives alone in a flat in London with nothing much to keep his interest except his love of traditional jazz and a meticulously maintained flower garden terrace. This is all turned upside down when Mrs Silver (Dame Judi Dench) moves into the flat below and he is immediately overcome with feelings of love and excitement. He hatches an elaborate plan involving the growth of her beloved pet tortoise Alfie knowing it will bring her happiness, in the belief that she will fall in love with him as a result.

The supporting cast, including James Corden as narrator and Richard Cordery as the annoying neighbour Mr Pringle (a new character created especially for this adaptation), worked their parts well, though this really was a tale of two hearts.

It was a faithful take on the classic Dahl book, one of the last of the seventeen children’s novels he wrote. By this I don’t mean just in the details (and there were one or two deviations made by the writers Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew Archer, mainly because the original book was so short), but also in the tone.

It isn’t an easy book to tackle in comparison to the likes of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl’s books are always firmly aimed at children, and many of his most enduring successes are stories that prominently feature relatable young characters. In Esio Trot, however, we are presented with two much older individuals, and thus a conundrum for the filmmakers. I am pleased to say they were able to maintain the quintessential Dahlness we have grown to love over the years. It would have been far easier to adapt the story to one aimed at the older generation, those the same age as Hoppy and Silver.

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Looking back, I’m not sure why I loved this story so much as a child. It is essentially a love story between two lonely and wrinkled septuagenarians. Perhaps it was the ridiculous mischief of the plan Hoppy executed. I’m not entirely sure. In many ways, Esio Trot is the biggest vindication of Roald Dahl’s status as one of the greatest children’s authors that ever lived. How else could he have made this one work?

Esio Trot is available for purchase on DVD now.

* The 1984 film Gremlins is loosely based on the characters developed by Dahl for his 1943 book The Gremlins, which were to be the basis of a Walt Disney Studios animated film until plans were shelved. The gremlins in his book derived from the mythical creatures that British Air Forces pilots blamed unknown faults with their aircrafts on.