It’s been seven years since John Carney’s “Once” started its improbable run as one of the most beloved art-house hits of the decade – it collected the audience award at Sundance, made over $20 million at the box office on a pittance of a budget, won the Best Original Song award at the Oscars, and was recently turned into a highly successful Broadway musical. And during that whole run, Carney just went back to making quiet Irish indie films that never really made it out of the small-tier festival circuit. But now he’s returned to the subject of making music that he captured so well in “Once,” and it’s certainly attracted a much starrier ensemble this time around. “Begin Again” earned positive reviews at last year’s Toronto festival, where it played under the much-dripper title of “Can A Song Save Your Life?” (good call changing that, marketing folks). I wouldn’t have guessed that Keira Knightley would have any particular musical talent, but I can’t even think of the last time she played, say, a normal, contemporary person in a non-blockbuster/genre film (“Bend It Like Beckham,” maybe?). I’ll support that. Ruffalo’s obviously in his wheelhouse playing the incorrigibly charming ruffian, and there are some quality supporting players hanging around in Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden and Mos Def (OK, not so sure about Adam Levine).
I’m all in on Richard Linklater at the moment. I love what he did (is doing?) with the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy. He’s bouncing between interesting indies and passion projects in between. And little did we know that for the past twelve years he was working on this ambitious project. Just about the only fiction-film equivalent to “Boyhood” would be François Truffaut’s Antoine Donel films, and those weren’t nearly as methodical, nor as condensed, as Linklater’s attempt to capture the development of a boy from 6 to 18 in the course of a single film. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin festival and got nothing but raves out of Sundance – the utter singularity of this film ensures that we’re going to be talking about it all year, and, I have a sneaking suspicion, on the awards circuit.
Here we have a more obvious prestige contender. While “Once” went from screen to stage, this jukebox musical is going the other way, guided by the somewhat unexpected hands of none other than Clint Eastwood; though I suppose you might have guessed that, as Eastwood has brought his trademark washed-out color scheme to yet another period piece. I’m not really sure why he continues to insist the past has to look like the past, but oh well. Eastwood seems to have kept the stage version’s fourth-wall-breaking/Rashomon structure, and lead John Lloyd Young is reprising the role of Frankie Valli that he played on Broadway. Seems pretty much guaranteed to win over those who are already fans of the musical (or The Four Seasons in general), but can it draw in a wider audience?
Jenny Slate didn’t have the most successful run on Saturday Night Live, but she’s been proving herself as a hilarious and talented comedienne in supporting TV roles in Parks & Recreation, House of Lies, Kroll Show, Bob’s Burgers and Hello Ladies. “Obvious Child” could be a breakout for her, as it seems like the whole thing is tailored to her particular abilities – so much so I was surprised to find she didn’t write it herself. Should make for some nice summer counter-programming.
The latest from modern melodramatist James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own the Night”), “The Immigrant” got good reviews last year at Cannes but didn’t really burn the house down; but perhaps that’s to be expected from a film that sure looks to be all about craft and restraint. The film’s shimmering, glowing aesthetic is certainly striking, and the central trio is intriguing: Phoenix’s career has been revitalized on the back of “The Master” and “Her,” Jeremy Renner is proving himself again in prestige/auteur pieces after being ill-served by mainstream Hollywood in the “Mission: Impossible” and Marvel franchises, and Marion Cotillard is always ravishing in a period piece. Gray has a small but loyal band of defenders, and this could be the kind of baity piece that earns him some more appreciation.
Just to make sure that you don’t leave here too happy, here’s a moody and disquieting teaser for Bennett Miller’s delayed psychological thriller/drama, based on the true story of athletic sponsor John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz. Sony Pictures Classics pushed “Foxcatcher,” originally set to debut last fall, to 2014, not because of any issue with the film itself, but because the 2013 slate was just getting too crowded. Considering the dogfight of an awards race we went through, that was probably a smart move. Miller’s another intriguing filmmaker – “Capote” and “Moneyball” were very different, equally quality works, and “Foxcatcher” sure looks to continue his amorphous, flexible mastery of tone and style. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Steve Carell’s clearly attention-grabbing transformation into the schizophrenic du Pont, but his off-putting, mannered delivery could very well be the crux of the role – I’ll certainly reserve judgment until we get a better look.