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Begin Again Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

Begin Again (2014) movie poster Begin Again

Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: John Carney

Cast: Keira Knightley (Gretta James), Mark Ruffalo (Dan Mulligan), Hailee Steinfeld (Violet Mulligan), Adam Levine (Dave Kohl), James Corden (Steve), Yasiin Bey (Saul Byron), Cee Lo Green (Troublegum), Catherine Keener (Miriam Hart), Rob Morrow (CEO), Jennifer Li (Mim), Ian Brodsky (Malcolm), Shannon Maree Walsh (Rachel)

Buy Begin Again from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD Instant Video

John Carney wrote and directed Once, the highly-regarded 2007 Irish music drama that won the Best Original Song Oscar, gave birth to a real-life folk duo and romance, and spawned a decorated Broadway play.
Carney followed up that successful name-making venture with Zonad, an alien comedy he wrote and directed with his brother Kieran based on an unreleased short they had made. There was also a small independent Irish film that virtually no one saw. Now, Carney returns to serious filmmaking with global appeal on Begin Again, another tale of musicians, though this one boasting a cast of international renown.

The film brings together New Yorkers Gretta James (Keira Knightley) and Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo). The British Gretta is an amateur singer-songwriter who recently broke up with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), a singer enjoying much solo success after contributing to a film's soundtrack. Dan is a former A&R Records man and one of the two founders of the indie label Distressed Records.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta James (Keira Knightley) use a headphone splitter so they can both listen to the same song on the subway in "Begin Again."

Recently separated, a bit alcoholic, and just fired from Distressed by his co-founder (Mos Def, now calling himself Yasiin Bey), Dan isn't in a great state when he sees Gretta performing in a club. He expresses a desire to represent her. She is disillusioned with the music industry and resistant to being told how to dress and look. Nonetheless, with enough convincing and candor, Dan and Gretta agree to collaborate on the album that will embody Dan's raw vision: it will be recorded all over New York City, from rooftops and the Central Park Lake to alleys and subway stations.

Dan and Gretta bond as each hopes the partnership will lead them to better things. Dan, for instance, sees Gretta as his way back into Distressed Records. The album also poses a way for Dan to connect with Violet (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld), his fast-maturing teenage daughter.

Begin Again reminds the viewer of Once, with its similar premise of recording an album as an escape from life's harsh realities. It is an optimistic film, almost to a fault. Dan and Gretta's problems are the kind that somehow can be easily solved with some passionate music-making. The proceedings have the look and feel of a romantic comedy and the nearly twenty years separating Ruffalo and Knightley wouldn't be terribly unusual for the genre, but the movie doesn't take its broken-hearted artists down the path you expect. For Carney and his characters, pure music, without label interference and remixes, is the greatest love of all.

Dan's teenage daughter Violet ("True Grit"'s Hailee Steinfeld) dresses like a tramp, until hearing and heeding Gretta's fashion advice. In his acting debut, Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine briefly sports a thick beard as successful singer Dave Kohl.

Easily compared to Once, Begin Again is the type of movie that might impress and surprise from an unknown cast and filmmaker. With these seasoned actors and Carney at least a somewhat known property, though, it kind of underwhelms. It's watchable enough and its upbeat spirit is a refreshing alternative to many of its cynical contemporaries.
But it feels a little calculated and inauthentic while often playing like a feature-length music video. There are times when Carney gets too cute, cloying, and contrived. Violet goes from short shorts and high heels to style and class after a short exchange with Gretta, someone she's just met. The relationship between Gretta and Dave aims for complexity, but it lingers without you knowing why you should care.

Ruffalo is charismatic as always and it's nice to see him fill a much too rare lead role (he and Knightley are given that now rarely employed diagonal billing). Knightley is considerably less charming, although she seems to do more singing than acting here. Steinfeld proves it was the role of Mattie Ross that made her a teenage Oscar nominee and that she is sadly unlikely to see another role of such worth anytime soon. She's game in her part, but it's a fringe character reminiscent of throwaway bits from minor films you've forgotten.

There's still more to her role than the ones filled by the likes of James Corden and Catherine Keener. But that's because after you subtract performance scenes and scenes where Dan and Gretta simply observe their surroundings while listening to music from her phone with a dual headphone splitter, there isn't a whole lot of the 104-minute runtime left to go around or do anything but move us through the film's prescribed points, which remain routine even as Carney tries to jazz them up with some unnecessary nonlinearity.

Begin Again received mostly favorable reviews, but its 82% Rotten Tomatoes rating is deceptive, since its average rating is only an okay 6.8/10 and the more critical top critics only assigned it a 6.2/10 for a 65% approval rating. It's the kind of movie where if your only two choices are "good" and "bad", you'll choose "good." A much more accurate label would be "good, but...", which would allow you to point out the many concerns I've addressed that come quite close to pushing the film into that "bad" territory.

For a fairly limited release (the film peaked at 1,302 theaters), Begin Again did respectable business in its mid-year opening. Only three films have grossed more this year from fewer theaters: Chef, Boyhood, and A Most Wanted Man. The movie's timing likely precludes it from awards competition. With a Thanksgiving or Christmas debut, this might have contended in the Golden Globes' Comedy or Musical categories. I guess it still has an outside shot at cracking those less than cutthroat fields, although a Best Original Song nomination is a more realistic goal, with the repeatedly reprised "Lost Stars" being the obvious one for awards powerhouse The Weinstein Company to back.

Begin Again: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Subtitled in English
Release Date: October 28, 2014
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Begin Again may be an independent film, but its $9 million budget is more than enough to give it a certain polish, which shows in the Blu-ray's vibrant, appealing 1.85:1 widescreen presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also satisfies, primarily with its distribution of the almost constant supply of original and licensed music.

James Corden discusses the movie in "The Making of 'Begin Again.'" Lyrics enable you to sing along with Adam Levine on the Best Original Song hopeful "Lost Stars."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-HD extras begin with "The Making of Begin Again" (20:53), a thorough featurette that serves up a standard yet satisfying supply of talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage.
Cast and crew marvel about their collaborators (singers who can act! actors who can sing!), explain their interest in the project, and describe the excitement of filming (and even briefly living) in New York City.

Beyond that, we get four "lyric music videos" (14:39), music videos that dispense lyrics (in large, colorful, stylish, and creative fashion), should you wish to sing along. Featuring a mix of film and performance clips, the videos are Adam Levine's "Lost Stars" and Keira Knightley's "Lost Stars", "Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home", and "Like a Fool."

The disc opens with trailers for The Sapphires and 20 Feet from Stardom. Begin Again's own trailer is nowhere to be found here.

The menu runs with an ordinary montage of clips over a skyline-backed listings bar.

Finally, the lone insert within the unslipcovered keepcase supplies your unique code needed to download or stream the Digital HD UltraViolet version of the film that's included with this purchase.

Gretta James (Keira Knightley) records a song on a New York City rooftop with a variety of classical and contemporary musical accompaniment.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Begin Again has agreeable heart and spirit, which along with another likable Mark Ruffalo performance makes it a little easier to overlook the formulaic nature of its music-dominated story. It's as if a more experienced filmmaker had more money and a more accomplished cast with which to make Once, which is basically what this is.

Weinstein's Blu-ray meets expectations with high quality picture and sound, a decent featurette, an apt handful of music videos, and Digital HD. If you like the movie, you should appreciate the disc, but I'd advocate a rental over a purchase.

Buy Begin Again from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Mark Ruffalo: The Kids Are All Right Margaret On the 2nd Day of Christmas | Keira Knightley: Last Night Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Hailee Steinfeld: True Grit | Catherine Keener: Being John Malkovich Please Give Where the Wild Things Are
James Corden: Gulliver's Travels | Mos Def: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Inside Llewyn Davis The Sapphires CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story 10 Years For a Woman

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Reviewed November 1, 2014.



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