Begin Again (2013)

2015 #188
John Carney | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once’s writer-director returns with a film that could’ve been dubbed Once 2: New York.

Mark Ruffalo’s out-of-favour record exec discovers Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter, stranded after her ex became a hit. Convinced she could salvage his career, he persuades her to record an album. They bond; will there be romance?

The songs aren’t as catchy (though some are decent) and the shape of the story is overfamiliar, but likeable performances from the stars, plus James Corden and Hailee Seinfeld, keep Begin Again a pleasant experience — albeit one that occurs more in the imagination of dreamy creative types than the real world.

4 out of 5

A Late Quartet (2012)

2014 #57
Yaron Zilberman | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

A Late QuartetSet in the rarefied world of classical music performance, A Late Quartet charts the fallout among the members of a highly-acclaimed New York string quartet when their leader (Christopher Walken) announces his impending retirement.

A talented cast work wonders in this straightforward drama, layering emotion and plausibility over a sometimes heavy-handed screenplay. Particular praise is warranted for Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the group’s suddenly-ambitious second violin, and, in the key supporting role outside the quartet, Imogen Poots. Equally holding his own among the better-known names is Mark Ivanir, the quartet’s precise and entrenched first violin. As the fourth member, Catherine Keener is probably given short shrift, her personal relationships and backstory used to illuminate others rather than herself.

Some have criticised the narrative’s basic tenets, for it being quite the coincidence that a group who have been together for almost a quarter of a century should have such a tumultuous few weeks all of a sudden. I think that’s allowable: Walken’s diagnosis and proposed retirement sends shockwaves that bring long-standing issues and feelings to a head — that feels plausible to me. It remains a bit melodramatic at times… but then, isn’t that just artists for you?

Christopher WalkenWhere it does make a mistake is in divorcing Walken from the rest of the group for so much of the time. He ends up going to Parkinson’s groups and doing exercises as if this is some kind of “Issue of the Week” TV movie, while everyone else gets on with the plot. Some of the best bits belong to him though, like the story cribbed from a real musician’s autobiography.

Also worthy of note is Frederick Elmes’ beautiful photography, which is really crisp and warm (praise also for the Blu-ray authoring, I guess). Plus snow-blanketed winter New York always looks majestic.

A Late Quartet isn’t revolutionary or even exemplary in many respects, but as personal-relationships dramas go, the top-drawer performances give it appeal.

4 out of 5