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.
For any creative person who has felt for a moment that they have impulses their contemporaries just don’t understand, there’s a spectacular new movie for you. Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (A) chronicles the extraordinary tale of a cult filmmaker (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who decides to follow up his underground sensations El Topo and Holy Mountain with an ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bestseller in the mid-1970’s, and his vision is in nearly every way clearly before its time. Like a filmmaking Dorothy Gale, he rounds up talent ranging from Salvador Dali to H.R. Giger to David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd for a consciousness-awakening opus that was alas never to manifest. Through the ebullient storytelling of the dreamer at the heart of the story and his collaborators’ marvelous artwork brought to life, this film gives a sample of the visionary work that could have been. In chronicling the director’s failure, the movie shows the power of unlocking doors to the imagination, being true to your spirit and heeding the inner voices of creation. There have been movies made about the struggle of making movies that did and didn’t happen (Francis Ford Coppola and Terry Gilliam have been subjects), but this one was one of the best representations of conjuring the spirit of creativity and collaboration. It made me wish Jodorowsky’s outer space saga had been made, but the telling of this story – and its unintended effects on the template for the past 40 years of the global blockbuster action film – will bring the spice of life to anybody who savors wonder, surprise and inspiration at the movies.
It’s always a thrill to watch a starmaking performance, to witness an actor inhabit a role with singular ferocity. All the more astonishing is when this revelation happens to be an actor who has been in the spotlight for two decades and hasn’t really given a flicker of this genius before. And so it is with the formerly fey Jude Law who becomes the husky, hulky, wily and menacing ex-con safecracker central character of writer/director Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway (B). This rowdy British import has more bark than bite as Law’s character spews his witty cock-of-the-walk braggadocio and occasionally reveals he has a tender side too. The strongest plot line transports Law and sidekick (Richard E. Grant) to France where a debonair Demián Bichir and mysterious Mădălina Diana Ghenea treat them to 007-style intrigue. Later subplots fare a little less successfully, and there could be better character development in a couple of critical story points, but it wraps up well. The bawdy and imaginative script – including funny title cards – keeps things brisk and surprising. And you simply won’t be able to watch Law the same way again after watching him portray this corker of a criminal in reform.
Writer/director Richard Curtis, famous for Love Actually, is a master of capturing great emotional details but getting lost in the big picture, so it’s no surprise that his romantic time travel dramedy About Time (B-) is a lovable mess. Despite massive tonal shifts and meandering to subplots that distract from the central plot, it is cute and thoughtful nonetheless. Domhnall Gleeson smartly plays the reluctant hero who finds out as a young man from his father (a tender and restrained Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel in time and alter their fates. Enter Rachel McAdams, the woman with whom Gleeson wants to get everything right; and enter entanglements and plot holes aplenty as this British Groundhog Day weaves its magic spell. The premise is far-fetched and occasionally a little creepy; and yet still the charming performers keep pace with crackling dialogue and poignant moments. The wish fulfillment angle doesn’t jive completely since there’s really no reason the protagonist needs sci-fi tricks to get the girl. But ultimately the witty banter and generally winning ensemble make it a quite watchable affair.
For most of its duration, Gavin Hood’s outer space saga Ender’s Game (C-) is like supervising a bunch of kids at a Laser Tag park; it’s a whole lot more fun for the little ones. In a future when children such as the protagonist played by stoic Asa Butterfield are subjected to war game simulations as a test for battles against alien races, Harrison Ford and Viola Davis are talent scouts for a major war on the horizon. Lots of seen-that-before basic training activity ensues but with kids and with subpar effects within uninspired sets that look like discarded EPCOT pavilions. There were honestly some better flight effects in Hocus Pocus. This battle hymn of the pre-pubescent only gets good in the last 15 minutes or so when some moral weight is added to the proceedings. None of the actors gets to shine, and there are loose plotlines aplenty in what feels like the latest franchise that’s likely not spawning a sequel since Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins or Catwoman.
Buoyant performances by Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley and impeccable period details in production design lift Walter Salles’ otherwise mixed bag of a coming of age travelogue On the Road (B-). Based on Jack Karouac’s classic novel about nonconformity, the film traces episodic encounters between friends and lovers, capturing the delirium that bonds young people in their quest for identity and escape. Hedlund is pretty magnetic in a role once earmarked for Brando. It’s a pretty intense mess but watchable. Good supporting cameos by Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi, and even (gulp) Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst are good.
The next stop on Director Alexander Payne’s twisted travelogue is Nebraska (A-), and it’s a corker of a film, a comic father-son road trip wrapped within a requiem for the American Dream. Veteran actor Bruce Dern sheds all vanity as a befuddled cotton swab tipped codger who believes he has won a sweepstakes. Will Forte is a revelation as the preternaturally sensitive sad sack of a son who reluctantly takes dad on a journey to collect his prize and perhaps his last shreds of dignity. Lyrically paced and perfectly cast (June Squibb is hilarious as the long suffering matriarch), the film sneaks up into some of its life lessons. Although the central performance isn’t all that showy, it’s quietly affecting. The film is a black and white mini-masterpiece that is slyly observant and quite touching.
There are worse ways you could spend two hours at the movies but few as talent-filled as John Wells’s tart melodrama August: Osage County (C-). Drably filmed, oddly paced and crammed with an assorted cast of self-conscious A-listers, it’s an inert film indeed. Meryl Streep makes a marvelously horrible matriarch – a breathy, pill-popping spitfire second cousin of sling blade. I think I saw her chewing on an Osage armoire. Looking sternly Shetland, Julia Roberts is often effective as her dysfunctional daughter. Because the characters are so vile, though, it’s difficult to find the heart of the piece. It’s neither dramatic or funny enough to travel too far from just OK.
A most genius first hour squandered a bit for its remaining two acts, writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her (B) is an ambitious dramedy analyzing the bits and bytes of relationships. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the lonely protagonist who falls in love with a coquettish computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Although some similar themes were plumbed in Electric Dreams (oddly in 1984), Jonze makes a flimsy premise fresh and affecting. Setting this romance in an unspecified future gives the filmmakers some poignant portals to examine human rituals from a higher plane. The film soars most when the cyber siren summons the best in our hero, challenging him to experience the world anew. But there’s a point in which the audience has likely moved on, and Jones continues to belabor his themes. Woody Allen’s theory that comedies should clock in at no longer than 90 minutes would have been aptly applied here. A series of sequences bookended by snowfall could be edited out almost entirely, leaving a leaner and more consistently entertaining movie in its wake.
Stephen Frears’s Philomena (A-) is a bittersweet bonbon about a cynical journalist (Steve Coogan) and a staunch Irish Catholic woman (Dame Judi Dench) on a journey to find the son she unwittingly put up for adoption a half century ago. The characters are lovingly drawn, and the enterprise rises above melodrama thanks to a sharp script and nuanced performances. You’ll hear more about this sleeper hit come Oscar time as voters will undoubtedly be charmed.
David O. Russell’s comedic crime caper American Hustle (B) is sometimes an undisciplined mess, and this hurly-burly quality gives the enterprise both its frustrations and its charms. The con-women, played outrageously by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, steal the show. Other Russell repertory actors including Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and others don’t quite nail indelible characters. At its best, there were flashes of wily wit suggesting a Goodfellas/
Despite buzzy awards season mentions, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks (C+) is a tepid, often dull melodrama about the clashes behind the making of Mary Poppins that would be more at home on Lifetime than the silver screen. Tom Hanks in cheerful mode as Disney and Emma Thompson as frigid writer Travers make the most of their stock roles, but a lethargic storyline punctuated by tedious flashbacks of the author’s tragic kingdom doesn’t add up to a spoonful of much.