Lightning does not strike twice for Once writer/director John Carney as he brings his wounded souls bonding over music motifs Stateside in the NYC-set drama Begin Again (B-). Mark Ruffalo is a down-on-his-luck producer and Keira Knightley the unlucky-in-love songstress who catches his attention. Together the maven and his muse create an album on the streets of New York and rediscover their stride. It’s often affecting and means perfectly well, but the music never rises to the level nor the milieu to the moment to render a result as uncommon as its makers seem to imagine. Carney coaxes viewers a bit into the fact they’re watching a musical; and this camouflaged concoction filled with recording sessions, crooning and concert sequences occasionally swells to its raison d’être. Ruffalo and Knightly are charming as the chaste protagonists, and Adam Levine is serviceable in the role of a rock star on the rise. Other supporting cast members are given short shrift and are as misplaced as Manhattan by a director who better staged a similar tale among the buskers of Dublin.
Building on a legacy that includes anthropomorphic toys, fish and cars, Brad Bird’s entry into the Pixar universe, The Incredibles (B-) is one of the first to feature human protagonists. Like The Flintstones or The Jetsons, this animated situational comedy features a one-of-a-kind family. Because The Incredibles are all undercover superheroes, there’s a fun dichotomy between domestic bliss and all-out adventure. It’s all pretty fantastical but a touch forgettable, even with all the clever flourishes. Bird includes some deft touches and nostalgic homages, but ultimately I hoped this one would leap more tall buildings with a single bound.
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (B) reunites the spontaneous lovers played so memorably by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise. This time the conceit is that the roving conversation (this time in Paris) plays out in real time. It’s a bit more experiment than narrative continuation and only occasionally nails universal truths as before. But rarely do you get films with emotions laid this bare, and it’s fascinating to watch what Jesse and Celine will do next.
Sam Raimi gets a bit more daring and delves into character a tad more in his superhero sequel Spider-Man 2 (B-), a remarkably more accomplished film than its predecessor, even though it is still weighed down by the missed casting opportunity occupied by the tepid twosome Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. There’s a deeper sense of gravitas in the masked man maintaining his parallel identities, and the super-villain (Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus) demonstrates a good deal of menace, upping the stakes in this episode. Still, the tentacles of this adventure don’t really capture the imagination to the extent they should, and Raimi’s take on this potentially pulpy story rarely has the sting or the smarts that it could.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (C+) is a peculiar cinematic work: a re-creation of the bloody death of Jesus Christ, which we presume is intended as an exercise to depict the intensity of personal sacrifice suffered by man’s ultimate martyr. As played by Jim Caviezel, the actor doesn’t get much opportunity to act the part but rather to be the part. Gibson should be applauded for authenticity in filming on location and in the Aramaic language, although he throws in some bizarre effects and lingers on some strange exchanges that could play into charges of religious intolerance. The overall film is graphic and punishing and technically quite an accomplishment in its nightmarish depiction of brutality; but in telling the story of the life of one of the most remarkable figures to have ever walked the earth, it is a curious choice to hone in on only the torture that ended that life.
Mark Waters’s Mean Girls (B+) is a hilarious sociological comedy about the class warfare teenage girls inflict on each other in high school. Lindsay Lohan is a delight as a teenager returning to America after living overseas until her junior year, and she is now exposed to the modern-day Heathers played by Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacy Chabert. Infiltration of the cool crowd leads to dire consequences as the group lives and learns the Queen Bee mentality. Some jokes may hit too close to home for some, but this is a comedy that delivers.
Bill Condon’s Kinsey (A-) is a marvelous exploration of the life of a scientist who studied human sexuality in all of its forms. As played by Liam Neeson, it’s a revelatory performance, and so is Laura Linney’s as his wife. His controversies confound his expectations both scholarly and personally, leading to interpersonal drama. It’s a fascinating and well-made biopic.
Writer/director Paul Haggis’ Crash (A-) tells its tales of race and social tension and relationships in modern-day Los Angeles through the multi-character interlocking storyline format that Robert Altman made so famous. Don Cheadle, Michael Peña , Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon are among the standouts in this passion project that turns a mirror up at society and shows its characters how each becomes a situational racist when threatened by unsettling environments. It is a challenging and provocative work.
As director and the film’s leading man, Clint Eastwood fills the sports drama Million Dollar Baby (A) with a vital sense of surrogate family. His boxing coach protagonist along with his business partner (Morgan Freeman) take on a female trainee (Hilary Swank) to help her realize her dream of becoming a professional. As hopes are realized and tragedy strikes, this central trio sticks together through thick and thin. The film contains well-observed sequences of how humans behave under pressure-cooker situations both physical and emotional. It’s also doubtful you’ll see three performances this outstanding together in a film in some time.
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2 (B-) is the necessary conclusion to the vengeance spree being enacted by Uma Thurman’s jilted Bride; but it’s grittier and less fun than its predecessor. David Carradine gets more screen time as Bill along with a game cast. The action and body count continue to mount. It’s still very clever but not as fresh as the initial volume.