Category Archives: Film reviews

Film Review: LA LA Land is at heart the story of us all

Many feel called but few are chosen in the chase for stardom. For most of American history, Los Angeles has been the place where people flock to achieve their dreams of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry. Some make it and others experience heartbreak. Two such people are Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan, two lovers in the film “LA LA Land.”

This acclaimed movie is a throwback to the classic musicals of the 30s and 40s, where boy meets girl and tell of their love story in song. Sebastian is a penny ante club pianist with a dream of opening a jazz club. Mia works as a barista and auditions for film roles in between dishing out coffee at a studio lot to those who have already made it.

“LA LA Land” is like watching two people who are riding in separate cars on different roller coasters. Occasionally their tracks meet up, sometimes with positive and at other times with negative results. You’re pulling for them in their professional and romantic lives, but you can’t help but wonder if the two will crash and burn, especially when they meet up. Some people ride roller coasters for the amusement. After all, they’re located in amusement parks.  However, LA LA Land is primarily not a fun film.  There are too many emotional ups and downs.

Mia is young, enthusiastic and rebellious. The young lady, played by Emma Stone, is a no nonsense type. Stone’s face and personality conjure up images of a sharp talking Bette Davis. Like Davis, Stone is not a stunner, but she captures the screen.

Mia seems  to be quite sure she is going to get cast somewhere. She is the quintessential actor described by Dionne Warwick in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” In a week maybe two she thinks they’ll make her a star.  The  coffee shop gig is clearly not very important to Mia. It’s just a short stop on the way to the mountain top.

Sebastian , portrayed by Millennial heart throb Ryan Gosling, shares many of Mia’s traits, except he has made resistance an art form. He is unhappy with the state of modern jazz and resents having to pound out a prescribed playlist at his club gigs. What makes it difficult for him is that he is  not silent about it. While Mia is sweet to the public, Sebastian doesn’t care how he treats people. His initial encounters with her reflect this and foreshadow the  future of their relationship.

As the story unfolds, both Sebastian and Mia get off their roller coaster rides altogether and opt for a less threatening yet unsatisfying journey in the kiddie area. Mia begins to think like Warwick in longing for the peace and quiet of home while Sebastian begins to sell out musically. But when each of them experiences these setbacks and begins to believe that they are fantasizing about making it big (thus living in LA LA Land), their partner draws them back into their dream. In this respect, the couple are made for each other. It’s nice to have someone who loves you and knows you better than you know yourself. The rub is whether or not the aspiring celebrities can climb the thrill ride of success together.

Having lived in Los Angeles, I appreciated the occasional glimpses of the city’s culture the movie provides. In fact, if anyone knows anything about the town, it is what Warwick sang of: it’s a great big freeway. The movie opens with a humorous song and dance right in the middle of a traffic jam. I also grew nostalgic while Mia and Sebastian stood on a spot overlooking Los Angeles and its mountains at night. While the couple, in the midst of the early bumps in their romance,  did not appreciate the view, I did. As I spent my time in LA as a student or mainly unemployed, I also liked experiencing some of the other night life I could not afford while living there: the indoor clubbing and the eateries.

As a huge fan of Turner Classic Movies, I was somewhat disappointed by the music and dancing in “LA LA Land”.  Stone and Gosling are nothing special as hoofers and only have passable voices.. They’re not exactly Eleanor Powell or Fred Astaire. Having said that, Stone’s simple performance of “Audition (Here’s to the Fools that Dream)” was quite moving. The song’s lyrics sum up the lives of the two lovers and also our own. We can all relate.

“Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem.  Here’s to the hearts that ache.  Here’s to the mess we make.”

To Gosling’s credit, he did an amazing job on the piano, especially since he did not even play the instrument prior to his training for the film.

Going in, I thought that perhaps LA LA Land was over-hyped by Hollyood celebs for Oscar glory because it is somewhat biographical for them.  The Academy is nothing if not self congratulatory. Thus,  my expectations were low despite all the ballyhoo. I pretty much had decided that I would be pulling for “Manchester by the Sea” for Best Picture.  But I now think it’s a tie and I am surprised I think that way.

LA LA Land, lacks the old time song and dance inspirational religion of the classic movies, but the story is superb. It’s a tale of heartbreak mixed with love and ambition.  LA LA Land is every man and woman’s saga. Who could ask for more from a film?

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Film Review: Manchester by the Sea Asks if Redemption is Possible

Looking at his wife in the film “Manchester by the Sea”, Lee Chandler points to his chest and says,”There is nothing there.”

If this film provides an image of anything else, it is what happens to a man when  as author Gertrude Stein said  “there is no there there”. Lee is an empty vessel.

The vibrancy in Lee leaves him early in the tale after he makes a huge mistake. Thereafter, he is a shell.

Lee’s persona is fine as long as he can keep to himself. Indeed, he seems to prefer it.

When we are introduced to him, he is a custodian at an apartment complex in the Boston area. Lee is a good janitor, but he is not exactly a person who wins friends and influences people. When he encounters a crabby woman who has a water leak in her apartment, he curses at her, and gets himself into trouble with his boss.

The only reason Lee’s boss relents from disciplining him is that he convinces the man how good he is at taking care of the four buildings in the complex. The janitor is a jerk, but at least he is good at his job.

“Manchester by the Sea” uses a series of flashbacks to fill in the reasons as to why Lee has become the man he is and the effects of his massive mistake on him and others. I am no psychiatrist,  but it seems that like a lot of men Lee takes refuge in his work to escape from himself and the anguish bubbling inside of him.

Casey Affleck is masterful as Lee’s, reflecting his internal angst in his facial expressions. In general, he is a curmudgeon before his time and almost completely uncommunicative. Lee only talks when he has to.

However, an event occurs which forces him out of his isolated existence. Lee’s brother Joe (played by the wonderful Kyle Chandler) dies, which is not totally unexpected since in one of the flashbacks we are told that he only has a life expectancy of a few years.

For Lee, though, what IS unexpected is that Joe has made him the guardian of his 16-year old son Patrick. Out of the blue he has to be responsible for someone besides himself and a bunch of flats. In addition, he has to return to the town where he is a pariah because of his terrible blunder.

The best aspect of “Manchester by the Sea” is the acting of Affleck as suggested above. He offers a portrayal of Lee that shows the changeable parts of the character’s personality.

The flashbacks show that Lee was not always a sullen jackass. Before his massive error, he could laugh, party with his  friends and play with the younger Patrick with gusto.  Affleck manages the difficult task of depicting the influence of his character’s personal disaster on his personality with great talent.

The tragic story is a good one, but its telling is hindered by what seems to be a hurried attempt to tell it. The audience is led quickly from flashback, to scenic views of the town Manchester-by- the-Sea  to point of view shots of Lee driving through town. At times I felt like I was viewing my grandfather’s Super 8 home movies.

Furthermore, I had difficulty identifying the roles of the characters. The film does not have too many characters, but I still had trouble discerning who was who during its initial section, partly because of the hurried pace. In this respect, “Manchester by the Sea” goes to the extreme in attempting to correctly show us the story instead of telling us. Key details are unclear.

As a believer I also was unhappy with the tired old mechanism of portraying Christians as people who belong in an institution.  Despite my personal distaste for his task, Matthew Broderick as Jeffrey, the new man of Joe’s unbalanced wife, pulls off  the part of the creepy Christian quite well. Patrick’s meeting with him leads to a brief but humorous discussion of who is a Christian with Lee on the drive home.

Despite these drawbacks, Affleck’s performance carries the film and makes it worth seeing. If he is not nominated for an Oscar for best actor, then there is no justice.

As for the story itself, it is not uplifting, but it does deal with an important issue. The difficult question “Manchester by the Sea” poses is if a man who has done something awful can experience redemption. What the film and Affleck reveal is that it takes not only a village for that to occur, but also the man himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just One More

(SPOILER ALERT! The following is based on the Gibson film “Hacksaw Ridge”, a depiction of the true story of Desmond Doss. Thus, if you have not seen he film and intend to, I suggest you not read this until you do.) 

Desmond Doss stood at the top of a cliff on Okinawa.

Below him was relative safety among his fellow American soldiers. Behind him was pure carnage.  Doss and his unit had just been through pure hell, spending the day battling Japanese troops seeking to hold on to Hacksaw Ridge.

Like many of the battalions before him, his unit and two others had been chopped to bits during the fight. Except for the wounded laying among the debris and fog of war, and Japanese infantry wandering the battlefield looking for American men to send to their ancestors, Doss was the only living soul around. The other Americans had retreated off the ridge.

A look of confusion passed Desmond’s face. He had volunteered to join a combat union when the United States opened hostilities with Japan during World War 2, but only as a medic. His values, informed by his Christian faith, prevented from touching a weapon.

But Doss was just as offended as other Americans at the Japanese surprise attack of Pearl Harbor. He wanted to serve his country. But Desmond had determined that he would seek to save lives, not take them.

“God, I don’t understand,” he said. Desmond had done his duty during the battle, but his overall purpose seemed to elude him. Then he heard the cries of his men from the fog.

“Ok,” he said. At that point Doss knew why he was there. He faced the battlefield and moved out to save his comrades.

Desmond’s had already demonstrated enough courage for most men. He had battled the U.S. Army for the right to even be a medic. His commanding officers labeled him a conscientious objector and even a coward.

Doss preferred to think of himself as a “conscientious participator.” Even so, his leaders had sought to court martial him and drum him out of the service and he had even endured physical and emotional abuse from the other men in his unit because of his stance.

During the night and into the next day Desmond went from man to man, comforting them physically and emotionally. He carried American soldiers one by one to the edge of the cliff and lowered them down in an ingenious makeshift rope contraption.

Desmond’s mantra throughout his ordeal was “God, just one more. Help me to save one more.” After lowering one, he would go back to find another.

At one point, caught below ground in the Japanese caves as he evaded the enemy, he once ran into a wounded opponent. Instead of killing him, Doss patched him up. In fact, he managed to lower two hurt Japanese soldiers off the cliff.

The commanding officers and doctors back at the American encampment were amazed at the number of survivors from the battlefield. When asked how they had gotten there, they pointed to the work of Doss.

In one last trip to and from the battlefield, Desmond escaped down the rope climb with himself and another soldier in tow. Japanese soldiers fired at him from the top while American soldiers protected Doss and his “package” from below.

As Desmond was carried away, soldier after soldier looked at him with respect. Later his commanding officer asked Doss’s forgiveness, and told him that the men had to go back the next day, but that they wouldn’t go without him.

Desmond continued his heroics during the ensuing victory and was again carried wounded from the battlefield, this time wounded.  On the stretcher he called for his Bible. In it were the source of his values and his inspiration, a picture his wife.

For his work on Hacksaw Ridge Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to ever be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

I have seen many inspirational movies, but this one ranks at the the top. I was quite moved at  Desmond’s life and heroism. Afterwards, I stayed behind in an empty theater as the credits rolled. I bowed my head prayed, dedicating myself to God and his work again.

It is my desire to carry out my own personal mission to mankind from now until I enter eternity. I don’t know yet exactly how this desire is to be carried out, but as God showed Desmond the need of each man around him at the top of Hacksaw Ridge, I am sure he will reveal his task for me in serving them, also.

I do know prayer from here on out will be the same as Desmond’s: “Just one more. God, give me just one more.”

 

 

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Movie Review: shots at “American Sniper” are way off target

“In the world there are people who take a power drill to a kid. Thank God there are people like Chris Kyle up on a roof who blow the guy with the power drill’s head off.”

This is comedian and commentator Dennis Miller’s reply to Fox News star Bill O’Reilly when the latter asked him about complaint’s from some that the film “American Sniper” is pro-war propaganda.

O’Reilly noted prior to  Miller’s comment that he was annoyed at the attack on “American Sniper” because he felt that director Clint Eastwood had gone out of his way to show the suffering endured by Kyle and his wife from the Iraq War.

I would agree with both men’s assessment of this film, a unique work that is creating quite a stir at the box office and in American culture at the moment.

I knew little of Kyle’s story before I went to see “American Sniper” last week, but a close friend and my brother-in-law were highly complimentary of the flick. Therefore, I had high expectations for it. I was not disappointed.

The storyline generally follows Kyle’s four tours (yes, four!) of Iraq where he protected American Marines from concealed places with his adept shooting skill.

It was the culture shock Kyle experienced in going back and forth from the normality of the US to the chaos of war that moved me the most.

Kyle, played by a beefed-up Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle”), sees himself as a man on a mission to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Much of the conflict in himself and with his wife comes from the guilt he endures when he is not in Iraq carrying out it out.

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                                  Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper filming “American Sniper”

Credited with the most “kills” by a sniper in American history, Kyle has been quoted as saying that it was not the shootings that troubled him most.

It was my duty to shoot the enemy, and I don’t regret it. My regrets are for the people I couldn’t save: Marines, soldiers, buddies. I’m not naive, and I don’t romanticize war. The worst moments of my life have come as a SEAL. But I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job.

Cooper reflects this attitude in the film. He did something for me that I feel an actor should always do. His performance made me forget that the person on the screen was not an actor. As far as I was concerned, as I got lost in the film, I saw Cooper as Chris Kyle.

While I would agree with O’Reilly that the violence is downplayed, it is there. Yes, there is blood in the movie, but as I told a friend today, it is a “tempered gore”. There is enough of it to show the tragedy of death under such circumstances.

The person who enters the cinema expecting to see a war movie will be disappointed. Like the 1955 film “Battle Cry”, the film is not so much about combat as it is about the sad effects of it on people’s lives.  (In fact, I like to tell my friends the former flick is more “cry” than “battle”.)

Indeed, it was not the deaths of the people in Kyle’s sights in “American Sniper”that bothered me the most. It was his senseless killing back in the States at the hands of a veteran that he was trying to help.

I mistakenly entered the theatre too early and saw his funeral procession as the credits ran. I quickly hurried out of the room, but even at that point thinking about his ultimate demise was a very emotional experience.

Why? Because as Miller and others have said, I knew that Chris Kyle is an American hero before entering the theater. The movie just confirmed it.

Unfortunately, for him to survive multiple visits to a horrible battlefield and end up dying violently in his own land speaks volumes about our culture today.

However, given what one headline writer called the “rampage” at the box office to see “American Sniper”, I believe there is hope for our society. Most people value the contribution Kyle made “over there.”

To echo Dennis Miller, thank God for such men.

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People line up to see “American Sniper” as I exit the theatre

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Movie Review: “Birdman” Makes the Imagination Soar

I had to go see a movie called “Birdman.” I figured the main character had to be a brother from another mother given his name and my surname. Birds of a feather flock together.

I was looking for something decent, too. I skimmed (I don’t ‘read’ for fear of prejudicing my own opinion) a couple of reviews mainly to see if there were any superlatives. It turns out this  flick I had never heard of is something of a ‘sleeper’.  One major review said it very could well be the best movie made all year.

The flick opens with a backside view of a man sitting in his underwear staring out of a window and musing on his crummy state.. Not having the greatest eyesight, I had to focus to notice that he was in fact sitting on air, i.e. levitating.

This is indeed the Birdman, whose real name is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Sitting in a dumpy room reminiscent of pictures of Adolph Hitler’s abode during his early house arrest, Riggan is conversing with an unseen voice. At this point, as a Christian person, I was beginning to have some concerns about the potential spiritualist bent of “Birdman.”

However, the film, i.e., “Birdman”, begins to fly, especially photographically right after this opening scene

The camera follows Riggan around. The filming technique is unique. especially at the beginning. Internet sites focusing on the cinematography note the movie was filmed as if it was all done in one take. The cinematography is the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, the man who also worked his wonders on the space thriller “Gravity”, a movie I had high praise for.

Riggan has sunk all his money into producing a Broadway play based on the work of an author whose book is 60 years old. When one of the key actors experiences an unfortunate accident while rehearsing, the play seems doomed. However, RIggan is glad the man is gone because he was a terrible actor.

One of the other actors, a woman named Lesley (Naomi Watts), uses her relationship with well known Broadway star Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) to convince him to join the play. Initially elated, Riggan begins to regret Mike’s presence when it is clear the actor is a first-class jerk and is taking over the play. This relationship serves as the major character conflict in “Birdman”, Also providing pain to Riggan is his former druggie daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is his personal assistant.

The “voice” is also a source of conflict. It continually makes its presence known to Riggan, and what he has to say is not particularly encouraging, especially when it comes to the former Birdman’s efforts to be a success on Broadway. The film portrays Riggan as a man trying to attempt a feat he apparently doesn’t have the chops for.

The frustrations experienced by Riggan”s battles with the other characters tend to produce F-bombs at times. I note this only for the sake of my fellow believers whose sensibiities might bothered by watching a film with this kind of language.

Typically, as with many men, Riggan is encouraged by the women in his life, including his ex-wife and girlfriend, an actor in the play. Lawyer friend and producer Jake (Zack Galifianakis) also more vociferously pushes Riggan to carry on, especially since he is privy to their financial straits.

Keaton is Jack Nicholson-esque in his portrayal of the aging, fading actor trying to turn his life around. Norton and Stone also provide fine performances as flawed people seeking to make their way in New York City. Wasn’t it Sinatra who used to sing that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

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RIGGAN THOMSON HAS AN EPIPHANY DURING “BIRDMAN”

“Birdman” is definitely a special movie, in a strange sort of way. It is difficult to separate truth from reality in this film, especially when it comes to RIggan’s musings. But isn’t that what the cinema is for–to spark our imaginations?

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Movie Review: Chadwick Boseman Elevates “Get On Up”

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CHADWICK BOSEMAN PORTRAYS THE SURLY JAMES BROWN

My hometown of Baltimore was a hotbed of soul music back in the day. As a result, I grew to enjoy groups like The Four Tops and The Temptations. For some reason, I never really got into James Brown. I think his style was a little too edgy for me. 

The newly released biopic “Get On Up” captures the roughness of “The Godfather of Soul.” Credit for this tense portrayal of Brown goes to Chadwick Boseman, who I had never seen before since I missed him play Jackie Robinson in “42”.

Boseman is superb. His characterization exaggerates Brown’s raspy speaking voice and irascible nature and adroitly performs his funky dance moves, including groin endangering splits. Brown created his own choreography, so Boseman had a challenging task in replicating his footwork and other motions.

He told Yahoo News that he wasn’t sure he was right for the role, including the physical part, especially having just come off of playing the more phlegmatic Jackie Robinson. However, after some coaching and viewing his own screen test, he decided to give the character a try.

“Get On Up” reveals the harsh nature of Brown’s upbringing and how it influenced his approach to life. The singer, born in 1933, was the son of a 16-year old mother and a barely adult father. The film shows the violence and immorality surrounding Brown in his youth. His mother eventually left the family and moved to New York. His father is portrayed as an abusive husband and parent. The movie shows Brown spent part of his childhood growing up in a brothel.

I felt sad for James Brown after walking out of this flick. It is said that it is lonely at the top and “Get on Up” emphasizes how true that was for him. His only true friend was singer Bobby Byrd, who helped Brown get into music. As Byrd’s role in their singing group diminishes and Brown’s shines, their relationship in the film becomes more like one between a boss and a subordinate.

Great men and geniuses like Brown seem to have a certain arrogance that drives others way. As the story in “Get On Up” develops, Brown grows more and more authoritarian and tyrannical in his personal and business life. The end result is that he alienates just about everyone around him.

Brown’s life as shown in the film is also a narrative on race relations in the 20th century. In one scene, a couple visiting New Orleans refuses to swim in the hotel pool where the young Brown’s entourage is cavorting, noting that they paid a lot of money and were not going to swim with “niggers”. In a much later scene, the successful Brown comments to Byrd that they have come a long way, pointing out that a white man had just cleaned his friend’s pool.

The singer’s manager, played by old favorite Dan Ackroyd, also contributes to the racial theme. While discussing social justice on a plane with Brown, he reflects on how he as a Jew has collaborated to make a black man rich.

The story itself is not the strength of “Get on Up”, partly because the constant jumping around to different points in Brown’s life and back creates confusion. What makes the movie, in addition to Boseman’s performance, is the music and costuming.

The voice of James Brown is actually used in much of the film to reenact singing performances. Boseman described his musical role to Yahoo News as “singing underneath” Brown’s voice” as opposed to lyp syncing.

The evolution of the singer’s dress and hair is all part of the film’s ambience. Boseman through the work of designer Sharen Davis is attired in blue formal wear, a gold jump suit and even a fur coat. He sports a conk and wavy long hair.

The soul music is what attracted me to “Get On Up”. Boseman’s portrait of James Brown’s role in its development makes me want to look more into the man’s music.

When a film not only entertains you but also moves you to action, what more can you ask of it?

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Movie Review: Keira Knightley Surprises in “Begin Again”

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I have never been a fan of Keira Knightley. It could be that I am just not that into her because of the movies she does. For example, she was nominated for an Oscar in her role in the 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice”. But Jane Austen is not my thing.

I did like “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but I didn’t think she was particularly good in that flick. In any case, Johnny Depp stole the show in that film.

But it has been at least a decade since I have seen Knightley. After viewing “Begin Again” I can honestly say I was wrong about her. Either she has grown as an artist , or I just didn’t appreciate her work in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Frankly, Knightley is fantastic in “Begin Again”. However, it’s not her acting so much that got my attention. Knightley is very photogenic, but it is her musical ability that caught my eye. I think Knightley missed her calling.

I agree with critic Jim Judy, who found the music in the film to be unremarkable, but Knightley’s singing voice “lovely.” I had no idea she could sing like she does in this film.

She plays Gretta, a young woman who is a gifted songwriter, but one who doesn’t care so much about fame. However, she is discovered by Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a down and out record producer who sees her perform a song impromptu in a small club in New York .

Dan is only there because he has gone on a bender after losing his job with an indie record label, one he helped start. Add this catastrophe to his failed marriage and non-relationship with his 14-year old daughter Violet, and it is obvious that Dan’s life is in the toilet.

Gretta is in the pub for similar reasons. She has just moved in with her fellow British pal Steve because she has walked out on her budding rock star boyfriend Dave Kohl (played by pop sensation Adam Levine). The insightful lyricist has just figured out that her boyfriend cheated on her after he plays her a new song which has infidelity as a theme.

Gretta is at first reluctant to perform at the club or anywhere else. She is pushed on to the stage by Steve and when Dan attempts to convince her to let him produce an album for her, the best she can say is that she will think about it.

However, Gretta calls Dave the next day and agrees to come under his wing. What happens next is nothing short of brilliant. Dave and Gretta’s plan for their collaboration is extremely creative.

Their imagination and use of their talents are what makes the story in “Begin Again”. From their vision comes a new life for them and for several other characters in the film.

“Begin Again” will inspire those who find themselves at a crossroads to use their talents and ingenuity to take the next step. Dave and Gretta’s original thinking is a model for people who need to find a way to pull themselves out of the slough of despond.

As noted above, Knightley’s singing, screen presence, and dare I also say—acting–is worth the price of admission. In fact, although I love Adam Levine, she outshines him in “Begin Again”, including musically. Perhaps this is because the songs written for the film were more in line with her character’s ballad style than Levine’s top 40 genre.

Critics have come down hard on “Begin Again” for its profanity, but surprisingly I did not find it distracting. I was also glad, and frankly surprised, that the writers did not have the 40-something Ruffalo begin a romantic affair with the under 30 Knightley.

Dan and Gretta do become quite close, but their relationship is platonic and of the mentor to protégé kind. Indeed, I think the movie would have been ruined for me if the script had led into a sexual tryst between the two.

Without the f-bombs and booze, “Begin Again” could have been a family flick, one that moves people to seek redemption instead of giving up. For this reason, for adults it’s worth seeing.

And if Keira Knightley ever tires of acting, she has a future in music.

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