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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Begin Again (and a roundup of the last couple of weeks worth of movies)

OK, by this time, "couple of weeks" is probably something of an understatement. Still, there's some good stuff that I haven't touched on yet... as well as one or two serious stinkers, of course.

Starting off with what is probably my favourite of the films I haven't reviewed yet this month, Begin Again (8/10) is John Carney's spiritual followup to his wonderful breakthrough film, Once: a serious charmer of a film that came out of nowhere and won over audiences, award ceremonies, critics and other filmmakers, before becoming a highly successful Broadway play. Begin Again isn't quite in the same league as its predecessor but it is certainly in a similar vain. Originally titled, Can a Song Save Your Life, Begin Again is about two lost souls finding each other through music and plays out basically like a more fully produced (and therefore somewhat less charming) remake of Once - but with enough differences to make it worthwhile on its own terms. Even if it doesn't quite match the earthy beauty of Once - neither in its music, nor in the film itself - it's still a wonderfully observed comedy-drama with loads of heart, good jokes and immensely likable characters, anchored by two exceptional performances from Keira Knightley (who can really sing!) and the ever-cool Mark Ruffalo.

Begin Again isn't the only musical dramedy on circuit right now though, and it makes for an interesting companion piece to the infinitely cheesier, Sunshine on Leith (7/10). Following in the footsteps of Across the Universe and especially Mama Mia, Sunshine on Leith is yet another "jukebox musical" where a narrative is very clumsily constructed out of the songs of a beloved musical group - in this case The Proclaimers. As expected, it comes very close to being a guilty pleasure but its mixture of heart, humour and killer tunes makes for an unapologetically goofy feel-good gem. That it has by far the most amount of grit of any of the films of this genre to date (which, to be fair, still doesn't exactly make it Trainspotting) doesn't take away from its bouncy good-nature and slightly daft charm. If nothing else, it proves that The Proclaimers are much, much better than the one-hit-wonder label they are usually stuck with outside of Scotland.

There's more good news to be had but, taking a lesson from many a U2 album, it's probably best not to front-load this roundup with all the good stuff. These are not the only two worthwhile films out on release right now but before getting to September's other decent-to-great offerings, lets take a quick look at some of the stinkers clogging up cinemas right now. I haven't seen the likes of The Canyons, Drive Hard or the dozen-odd low-grade South African bombs that come out with shocking regularity but I'm assured that they're terrible - and I see little reason to doubt this. I have, however seen Planes: Fire and Rescue (2/10) the charmless, humourless, outright awful spin-off of the spin-off of the spin-off of Pixar's worst film to date, Cars. It's little more than a particularly rubbish advert for some fairly blandly designed toys and is a particularly ugly black mark on Disney Animation's good name.

It also wouldn't be a month at the movies without another terrible Hollywood comedy to further depress us die-hard fans of the genre. Hot on the heels of Sex Tape, Bad Neighbours, Blended, Drive Along and Tammy (Jaysis, what a depressing line-up!), Lets Be Cops (3/10) takes two of the stars of the usually solidly funny TV comedy, New Girl, and puts them in this (mostly) utterly unfunny, offensively stupid and unlikable piece of shit about two idiots who somehow find that dressing up as police officers make them the blue-collar equivalent of rock stars. It's an insult to real, decent cops and is offensive to everyone else in the face of the police corruption and brutality that shows up all too often on the news. "Lighten up", I know, but it's kind of hard to when faced with something this depressingly cynical. Nick and Coach - I expected better of you.

Moving up to the more "meh" side of things, Into the Storm (4/10) is basically Twister but with less impressive actors and far too few flying cows. It's barely even worth a mention here. Before I Go to Sleep (6/10), an amnesia-thriller about a forty-year-old woman who wakes up each day unable to remember a thing beyond her twenty-third year, is significantly better as it features really strong performances from Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong and Collin Firth and a tense, moody atmosphere, but it often feels under-developed and its generic final act, once you know what's going on, is significantly less successful than the more mysterious, brooding feel of the first hour or so of the movie.             

Moving back to the more easily recommendable fare out there, there's plenty of guilt to go along with the real pleasures of Million Dollar Arm (7/10) as it tells the amazing story of a couple of Indian kids who become pro-Baseball players in the US, but does so by focusing on their often unlikable white, American manager (played with relish by the incomparable Jon Hamm) and his own story of redemption. It's a film that obviously has loads wrong with it (its weird racial politics, its surprising levels of contrivance and predictability) but it's so unbelievably charming, funny and likable that it's hard to not be won over by it. It's sort of Cool Runnings but with Indians in place of Jamaicans and baseballs instead of bobsleds but any positive comparisons to the evergreen awesomeness of that surprising cult-classic can only be seen as a good thing. It's biggest secret weapon though is its inclusion of the seriously lovely Lake Bell as the moral conscience and cheerleading-heart of the film.  

Rounding off the last few weeks, we have two solid films based on YA books. The lesser of the two, The Giver (5/10) has been a pet project for Jeff Bridges for years now so it's slightly disappointing that neither his performance, nor the film itself, stands out as anything remotely special. The Dude abides, of course, but this ultimately shallow update of Brave New World could do with a lot more character and soul. Still, it's decent enough as a utopian-cum-dystopian fable aimed at younger audiences about a world where real humanity is sublimated in the name of happiness, and, though it seldom wows, it does its job well enough that one hopes that it will lead these younger viewers to go onto better examples of the genre. Incidentally, the fact that Katie Holmes can believably play the mother of teenagers makes me feel very old indeed.

Finally, The Maze Runner (6/10) is nowhere near as good as the two Hunger Games movies that have been released so far, which is made all the more noticeable when you consider how much it's clearly competing for much the same "shelf space". Going further into it than that would be to give away its later revelations but this story of a group of young people being forced together by the adults of a world clearly gone wrong with its rebellious "chosen one" hero, its monochromatic colour pallet and its mix of veteran actors and up and coming new talent, still works pretty well on its own. It's certainly a huge improvement over the imbecilic Divergent. The characters are not exactly complex but they are generally well drawn enough that you can get involved in their story once the nicely done action begins in earnest and the world around them starts to reveal itself. Once again, however, this YA adaptation is set up as a series of films so those looking for a particularly satisfying ending should probably look elsewhere.

OK, admittedly, the last few movies are more "wavering thumbs" than full "thumbs up" but, subjectively I did like them more than the somewhat objective-ish ratings may suggest, as I am a sucker for dystopian stories and I pretty much loved Million Dollar Arm, gaping flaws be damned! They're certainly guaranteed hits for their respective target audiences.

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