Let’s put on a show! (Or, rather, let’s make an album!)


In the first scene of Begin Again, a blond Brit named Steve (James Corden) finishes his song at an open mic night in New York’s Lower East Side and coaxes his friend Greta (Keira Knightley) onto stage. She reluctantly, almost begrudgingly sings “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which she claims is new, and the audience barely notices. There is some polite applause, which Greta rolls her eyes at. She’s already down because, as we quickly find out, she has just broken up with a boyfriend of five years, an up-and-coming rock star (Dave, played by Adam Levine). However, in the middle of the crowd is an enrapt, drunk, mussed man (Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo) in his 40s, who is in awe. Neither the audience in the club nor in the movie theater knows why; the latter audience finds out ten minutes later when we see the scene from Dan’s perspective. As he watches Greta’s perform, he imagines other instruments joining in, all played by invisible musicians. Suddenly, the song soars. And we get a lesson in music producing, which is what Dan does for a living. Or had. He was fired that morning.

With this set up, the rest of the plot shouldn’t be too hard to predict. Dan persuades Greta to work with him. Dan needs to be redeemed as a producer after a drunken, depressed crash brought on by his divorce from Miriam (Catherine Keener) – which means he needs to be redeemed as a husband and father to Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), too. Greta needs to prove herself as a songwriter and performer after being relegated to being “Dave’s girlfriend,” particularly after Dave cheated on her with a record company assistant. Without any money, Dan and Greta decide to record an album entirely outside, from alley ways to rooftops. They recruit a band, pay them on the cheap, and start recording one delightful song after another. Meanwhile, they start developing a powerful, possibly romantic, friendship and work to repair their other relationships.

The plot of Begin Again is slight, using a few of the clichés of the let’s-put-on-a-show! genre and focusing on a rather simple redemption narrative in order to string together a bunch of beautifully directed musical performances. Writer-director John Carney’s last major feature, the magical Oscar-winning Once, had an even thinner story to link an Irish love story. That story was emotionally much more powerful, possibly because it snuck up on you, acted as it was by utter unknowns. Ruffalo, Knightley, Keener, and Levine are the opposite: They are huge stars and are all a bit distracting at first. Can Knightley Sing? Can Levine, an actual rock star, act? Is Ruffalo going to do that disheveled loser thing for the whole movie?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Knightley is always good, utterly convincing in both period dramas like Atonement and contemporary comedies like Bend it like Beckham. And she’s stunningly beautiful, as delicate as blown glass, and she has a sturdy charisma that standard ingénues tend to lack. With Begin Again, we discover she can also sing, with a voice something like a cross between Suzanne Vega and Lucinda Williams. Combining her emotional expressiveness and her voice makes for powerful musical numbers, particularly when she sings to Dave’s voicemail with “Like a Fool” or when she gleefully finishes the album accompanied by Violet’s guitar with “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home.” Levine, who acts with smooth naturalism, gets the final song, however, singing the Greta-penned “Lost Stars” as a grand and gorgeous audition for the Oscars. (“Falling Slowly” from Once won Best Original Song in 2008.)

Ruffalo doesn’t sing in the movie; during the musical numbers that he is producing, he is mostly a conductor and infectious cheerleader. Dan is a stereotype of an aging music executive – his theme song is probably LCD Soundsystem’s “I’m Losing My Edge” – and Ruffalo’s performance is reminiscent of the early disheveled stoner roles that made him a star. As Dan and Greta grow closer, he becomes more believable. By the end, however, the film belongs to Knightley and Greta, who refuses to compromise, in music and in love.

Begin Again
Written and Directed by John Carney
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam Levine
Inexplicably Rated R


The Normal Heart is no longer dated; it’s timeless.

When Larry Kramer premiered his play The Normal Heart off-Broadway in 1985, his agonizing, angry autobiographical story about the AIDS epidemic in New York City and the few activists desperately trying to help their lovers and friends hit like the city like an emotional meteor. While a very few theater critics were able to see through the anger and desperation and criticize the play for its occasional polemical two-dimensionality, most people who saw it experienced it like Kramer’s alter ego in the play Ned Weeks did AIDS: enraged and distraught. Kramer, who helped found both Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT-UP, is arguably the least subtle of modern American civil rights heroes; he makes Malcolm X seem like a cranky assistant principal. But of those heroes, only Marin Luther King, Jr. was as great a writer. Whatever dramaturgical problems the play had, Kramer wrote speeches for his characters that were powerfully eloquent enough to mobilize audiences to turn on the city that had long sheltered but had ultimately failed gay men. (It’s doubtful that New York’s closeted Mayor Ed Koch could have prevented the AIDS from becoming an epidemic, but it’s inarguable that his selfish, terrified inaction made it worse for New Yorkers infected with HIV.)

You’d think with a figure like Larry Kramer and a play so powerful and celebrated and a topic so immediate and dire, The Normal Heart would have been filmed quickly. But two things intervened: Kramer’s irascibility scared the bejesus out of closeted Hollywood, and Barbra Streisand, who held the rights to the film for more than a decade, thought the cinematic narcissism called The Mirror Has Two Faces was more important for her to make. It wasn’t until a celebrated 2011 Broadway revival of the play that the combined forces of HBO and Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) finally managed to begin filming.

Their stunningly good production of The Normal Heart is arriving more the 29 years after the play’s premiere. In that time GMHC became an entrenched bureaucracy and ACT-UP rose and fell and protease inhibitors made HIV a manageable illness like diabetes in wealthy countries and those countries have helped make it so for millions in poor countries and gay marriage is legal in 17 states and it is Supreme Court decision away from being the law of the land. Honestly, we don’t need The Normal Heart the same way we did in 1985. While the play was written as contemporary political theatre, it can’t be that now. Now, it is just history. This would seem to ensure than the film would be less than what the play was, but the opposite is what has happened. Kramer’s adaptation of his own play not only makes it work better for the expansive power of film, but it also fixes the particularly dated features of the play, tempering the anachronistic prevention arguments, deepening once flat characters, and expanding the story from its local specifics into a more universality. The Normal Heart is no longer dated; it’s timeless.

Kramer’s alter ego is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a neurotic gay writer unlucky in love and critical of gay men’s shallow promiscuity (and thus disliked by many of them). It is 1981, and his friends start getting sick and then dying, and based on the expertise of a cranky, wheelchair bound doctor (Julia Roberts), he helps organize a group of gay men to do something. In the play, the organization is unnamed, but in the film, as in reality, this organization is GMHC, now one of the country’s largest AIDS service organizations. While attempting to get The New York Times to write more about the disease, he meets Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a beautiful fashion writer, and they quickly fall in love. Meanwhile, Ned and his GMHC partners worry and grieve about their lovers and fight and fight about tactics and personalities, with Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) representing the WASPy conservative accommodation-minded opposite of Ned’s confrontational Jew and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) as their sweet, smart middleman. The stakes are powerfully raised with Felix reveals to Ned that he has a Kaposi sarcoma lesion growing on his foot. Between Felix’s illness, Bruce’s opposition, and the disapproval of Ned’s brother Ben (Alfred Molina), Ned is in a constant state of agony – and righteousness. The end of the story is pre-ordained by history and circumstance, and you will cry.

Kramer’s screenplay reorders scenes, deletes several expository AIDS 101 monologues, gives Roberts one extra minute to earn more sympathy, and greatly expands Tommy’s character. Based on Roger McFarlane, Kramer’s close friend and the first executive director of GMHC who went on to run multiple other AIDS organizations, Tommy was a small but key character in the play. In the film, he comes to represent the pragmatic, responsible, moral good that came from the idealistic and fraught early fighting between Ned and Bruce. Parsons, who has won three Emmys for The Big Bang Theory and is possibly the great comic actor of his generation, shows that he is as versatile and powerful as the film’s star Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo, to his credit, has never been as great on screen, despite brilliant performances in You Can Count on Me and The Kids Are All Right, and he is funny, heartbreaking, annoying, and very sexy. Performing a character created to be cried over, Bomer is obvious, but good. Roberts’s casting was maligned by some purists, but her cold, angry performance is flawless.

The biggest surprise for viewers not familiar with New York theater is Joe Mantello, best known now for his direction of, among other major Broadway shows, Wicked. As Mickey Marcus, one of Ned’s best friends, Mantello erupts in the third act of the film with the greatest of Kramer’s speeches, a barnburner of rage and agony. Like Parsons and Bomer, Mantello is an out gay man, and they join several other famous out actors – including Stephen Spinella, Denis O’Hare, and BD Wong – in a largely out gay cast. That would have been impossible in a film shot during the 1980s.

While Kramer and the cast are responsible for much of the film’s success, I have to give director Ryan Murphy his due. I think he’s the most overrated producer and writer in television. Whatever Glee’s charms, it’s wildly inconsistent and occasionally unwatchable, and American Horror Story is sadistic misogyny as low-brow art. I was terrified of what he would do to such an important work like The Normal Heart. But the film, despite being a little long and edited occasionally too bluntly, is beautifully directed, with scenes tautly staged and occasionally gorgeously shot. And when everyone in a cast delivers such consistently great performances, it can’t be simply their natural talent. Murphy directed them, and the film, to greatness.

The Normal Heart
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Larry Kramer
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons
Premiering on HBO on May 25 at 9pm

I can see you

now-you-see-me-headerAfter I walked out of Now You See Me, a caper film about four magicians who become master thieves and the FBI agents trying to stop them, I began to overthink the twist at the end. I won’t reveal it, because that would be unfair, but it made me question some of the opinions I developed while I was watching the film. At one point, I had leaned over to my boyfriend and asked, “Why are the magicians so well written and the cops so badly written?” The question at first was rhetorical; I was really asking the world why bad screenwriters exist. Then the question was real: Was it deliberate? Did we need to see the movie all over again with the knowledge of the twist? The answer to the second question is no. I don’t need to see it again. The movie wants to be Oceans 11 crossed with The Prestige crossed with The Usual Suspects, and as fun as it is in places, Now You Seem Me is an illusion, a mediocre film pretending to be a good one.

The movie begins with four street magicians – slight-of-hand entertainers like David Copperfield, not Harry Potter wizards – getting recruited by a mysterious benefactor who gives them the plans for a bunch of elaborate tricks. A year later, now dubbed the Four Horsemen, Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher), and Jack (Dave Franco) are putting on a massive stage show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, produced by billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). As their final trick, they teleport one of their audience members to a bank vault in Paris and steal three million euros and then rain the cash onto the audience. This heist brings in the FBI, led by Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), as well as a beautiful Interpol agent named Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). The Four Horsemen also spark the interest of professional magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, sleepwalking again). For the next hour and half, the magicians put on shows, steal money, and give it away while the FBI fail to stop them and Bradley chuckles. There are deeper mysteries involved, as well as old rivalries and large egos. It all ends exactly as the mysterious benefactor planned, and you may or may not be surprised who that is.

The best part of the movie, as I allude to above, is when the magicians are at work. Eisenberg and Harrelson are both given delightful dialogue, and they are experts at portraying mischievous arrogance. The filming of the stage shows, as well as the more minor tricks, usually made at the expense of the FBI, is where director Louis Leterrier, who gave us the fun Transporter movies as well as dreadful Clash of the Titans remake, does his best work. These scenes are thrilling, funny, and even beautiful. He also, not surprisingly, gives good action, but the car chases are not nearly as a good as the fist fight between Franco and Ruffalo. However, when the focus turns to just Ruffalo, Laurent, and the rest of the fumbling FBI, the dialogue dumbs down dramatically, and the flirtation between Ruffalo and Laurent is simply terribly written and acted, a rather astonishing feat considering the prowess of those two actors. And unfortunately, the balance between FBI and magician tips towards the cops in the second half of the movie, and I found myself asking that question about why the cops are so badly written.

I had too many questions, not just about aesthetic quality, but also about plotting, logic, and coherence. When you’re trying to pull off an ending inspired by The Usual Suspects, you can’t leave the audience asking as many questions as I did. Okay, it is possible I just need to see Now You See Me again. And if it comes on cable some lazy afternoon in a year or so, I may watch it looking for the “A-ha!”

Now You See Me
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, and Morgan Freeman
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex