I wrote a long piece a couple years ago, about why I refused to review the third “Transformers” movie: because the first two sucked, because Michael Bay is the Antichrist, because life is too short to spend watching make-believe computer-animated robots fight each other. I could go on and on.
I’m not seeing this week’s fourth “Transformers” film either. Luckily for me, the studio thinks so much of its chances with critics that the only press preview isn’t until Wednesday night – and I’ll be away at a film festival. (Watch this space for coverage.)
Fortunately, there are other, less abusive, more intriguing films hitting screens this week, so here goes:
“Begin Again” comes from writer-director John Carney, who burst forth with “Once” a few years ago. This film, which stars Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo (among others), captures the same blend of wistful emotions and life-affirming musical energy as that 2006 hit.
Told in complicated chronology, which jumps back and forth in time over the course of a couple weeks, the film centers on Dan (Ruffalo), a floundering record executive, and Greta (Knightley), a songwriter with a failing relationship. Their paths cross one night at a Brooklyn open-mike, where she sings an original song that knocks him out.
We then see their recent lives to that moment: Dan, losing his job at the record company he co-founded, for various divorce-driven bits of acting out; Greta, who followed her pop-star boyfriend (Adam Levine) to the U.S. from the U.K., dealing with their breakup. She wrote the song about him – but it hit home with Dan, who decides he can turn it into a hit and her into a star.
The rest of the film focuses on his execution of an idea: recording her songs with a live band in strange locations all over Manhattan. They play and sing on rooftops, in apartments, even on rowboats in Central Park. It’s a cute gimmick, mostly offering visual novelty moments by setting performances of the songs (mostly by Gregg Alexander, Carney and cowriters) in unusual environments. In other words, it’s a musical, but they aren’t bursting into song spontaneously.
The heart of this film is, in fact, its heart – that same examination of the intimate fulfillment from making music well with another person that was at the center of “Once.” Indeed, it was originally called “Can a Song Save Your Life?”, a title that really does capture the urgency of the film.
The will-they/won’t-they romantic aspect of the plot is poignant and more fleshed out than in “Once,” though that’s not necessarily a positive. The sense of longing that pours from both Knightley and Ruffalo is nicely calibrated between the search for love and the love of pursuing the muse. It’s a sweet, engaging film which, if a tad too shaggy, is a warm, funny change of pace from most summer fare.
And a few more:
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”: Joe Berlinger may be our premier true-crime documentarian (though he has many other arrows in his quiver) and, with this film, he has bitten off a bitter, complicated tale. Berlinger uses the trial of Whitey Bulger, the Boston gangster who was captured in 2011 after being on the run for 17 years, to pose unsettling questions about what was apparently a corrupt Boston bureau of the FBI from the 1970s into the 1990s. The film carefully collates enough facts to raise fears about the level to which that corruption rose. But Berlinger also puts a face on the victims, letting us get to know the angry survivors who’ve been waiting for their day in court and following them through Bulger’s trial. Bulger is definitely a villain here, but so is the federal law-enforcement system that used Bulger for its own ends. The film shows them manipulating this trial to engage in back-filling and otherwise obstructing the true story of their own involvement. It’s obviously a topic of interest, given the number of other projects (films, books) already on the assembly line. But Berlinger’s version is must-see, a crisp (if dense) examination of a shameful and tragic story.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”: Brian Knappenberger’s documentary examines the 2013 suicide of Aaron Swartz, creator of Reddit and an Internet superstar who was hounded to death by the federal government. Indicted on trumped-up charges for downloading and circulating academic journals, Swartz was threatened with 35 years in jail by an overzealous prosecutor – an example for all who would dare challenge the government’s grip on the Internet. Swartz, who was 26 when he killed himself, was brilliant practically from toddlerhood and became a leading light in the fight for information freedom on the Internet. His very visible activism ultimately made him a government target. Knappenberger’s film is straightforward in telling Swartz’ story, using home-video from his still-grieving parents’ archive to bring the young Aaron to life. This is a solid film on an important topic, with issues that touch us all, the story of a young man who died trying to protect the public interest against government encroachment.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” is excessive in an interesting way for much longer than you think it could be. Unfortunately, that’s not long enough. There’s class warfare afoot in this post-apocalyptic sci-fi-action-mystery- martial-arts mash-up that stars Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Jamie Bell. Evans is a guy named Curtis, one of the underclass who live in the rear cars of a train which (deep breath) carries the survivors of a global freeze that has killed everyone else and left only this solitary choo-choo circling the globe endlessly. The folks in the back never see the folks in the front – but they are unhappy that the powers that be (in other words, the front) keeps drafting small children into “schools” in the front. Curtis leads a revolt, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris make unusual appearances, and there’s some hand to hand between a group of masked thugs carrying hatchets and opponents carrying nothing. It never goes where you expect, but how willingly you suspend your disbelief for the increasingly far-fetched film depends on you.