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Begin Again Won't Let Mark Ruffalo Play a Person

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo make music on the streets of New York.
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo make music on the streets of New York.
Andrew Schwartz

Mark Ruffalo's great gift, besides those scruffy good looks and that prickish, hungover charisma, is capturing the essence of the guy who's spinning toward a crash but trying to angle himself back. His greatest performance, in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me, one of the best films of the 2000s, is a slow-motion skid-out, a portrait of a man who wishes he could honor the long-term promise of domesticity but can't help but feel crushed by it — especially since he can enjoy the immediate pleasure of mastering the party and the pool table in any bar in America. Unlike most ramblin' men in movies, Ruffalo's Terry Prescott offered no wisdom about what life's really about, and he was stripped of On the Road romanticism. He wasn't searching for anything because he suspected there wasn't a whole lot out there left to find.

Recently, that restlessness has been tapped for The Avengers, where his Bruce Banner also barely holds it together. Instead of hitting the road when life gets too tough, Banner's going to punch the world — it's the fantasy of the go-nowhere dude he captured so adeptly in Lonergan's film.

Begin Again, like several of Ruffalo's more lackluster pictures, improves if you pretend his character is actually Prescott or Banner a couple years later, that this unsteady hunk might get fed up and either catch or throw a bus out of town. No such luck, unfortunately. Ruffalo stars as one of those movie guys who has it all but loses it in the first 15 minutes so that he can learn the kind of lessons Terry Prescott would laugh at. He gets fired, he's separated from his wife, his daughter won't talk to him, he sleeps on a grubby mattress in the Village and his vintage Jaguar does what vintage Jaguars do: It craps out.

Ruffalo plays Dan, the founder of a once-pioneering record label now scraping along in the Internet age. He's sold his interest and stayed on as an A&R rep, but he can't score a hit. Once his truth-telling boorishness gets him canned, he winds up drunk at a Village open mic night, where he's shaken with a this-is-what-it's-all-about revelation: a plaintive ditty sung by Gretta (Keira Knightley) to a crowd not paying attention. The scene is writer-director John Carney's strongest, or at least his most daring. As Knightley strums into the void, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Ruffalo's Dan imagines the drums kicking in and a string section sawing away, all of which we actually see, the sticks and bows working themselves without human hands. That his fantasy arrangement is hopelessly overwrought doesn't kill the moment. Here's a desperate man, dreaming big, and Ruffalo and the movie both sell it — for a scene.

From there, despite sturdy performances, Carney's film never again connects to such urgent human feeling. That might not be a surprise, considering this is a movie about a down-on-his-luck millionaire willing to bet that Keira Knightley might be a star. Since he's so obviously right, and since he's not risking much at all, the story collapses into a curiously tension-free New York musical. All that prickly inner conflict Ruffalo is so adept at suggesting? Cheery Begin Again wants none of it, offering instead lots of scenes of two characters we don't believe could ever exist arguing about authenticity in pop music. Dan's old label isn't interested in signing her, and Knightley's character is too principled to sell out, so she and Dan hit on a plan just crazy enough to work in montage: record an album live outside in the city.

Dedicating themselves to her art solves all their problems, of course. Knightley plays a songwriter from England who came to the U.S. with her suddenly successful boyfriend (Adam Levine), a John Mayer type who sings ghastly falsetto pop and, as you might expect, proves no match for the temptations of fame. Carney tries to deepen the characterization some, but the boyfriend's obviously a cad, which is emblematic of the problem with the movie as a whole: Everything works out exactly the way it seems it will, with only one exception. At times, Begin Again seems to be nudging Dan and Gretta into a romance, and since they're two gorgeous people who make terrible decisions it wouldn't be hard to believe, even if the performers don't spark against each other.

The musical performances are pleasant, the songs all heartfelt chamber pop of the Aimee Mann or Sam Phillips variety, but without the idiosyncratic genius that might suggest. That goes for the characters Knightley and Ruffalo play, too. They're pretty, and they have the occasional interesting exchange about the soullessness of the music biz, but you'd never mistake them for the real thing, actual people in the actual world.

 

If a toddler tried to re-create the mystifying behavior of adults, it would look a lot like Paul Haggis' Third Person, a drama in which grown-ups scream and cry and kiss for reasons that are confounding even to those who understand speech. The film follows a handful of couples, or really, kinda-sorta couples, who treat each other terribly, and then in the next scene are confused and stricken by their actions as though they're pawns under the thumb of a cruel chess master.

Which, of course, Haggis is. His Oscar-winning puzzle-piece epic, Crash, turned narrative coherence into a game that wasn't much fun to play. Here, we have a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Liam Neeson) typing away in Paris while torturing, and being tortured by, an unhinged reporter (Olivia Wilde) with ambitions of writing fiction and stealing him away from his wife (Kim Basinger). Meanwhile in Italy, a spy for copycat suit designers (Adrien Brody) gets tangled in a curvaceous Romanian prostitute's (Moran Atias) desperate attempt to buy back her daughter from a violent smuggler. Across the pond in New York, a soap-star-turned-hotel-maid (Mila Kunis) must prove to her ex-husband (James Franco) and her lawyer (Maria Bello) that she deserves to see her son despite that time a year ago he nearly died under her care.

The three plot lines fit together in a twist that isn't so much an "aha!" as an "argh!" As the pieces snap into place, our first guess is that Third Person is about loss, as the characters all long for someone who either is dead or hates them. Our second guess is that Haggis is exploring insanity. Anna has flown to Paris to give Michael a draft of her latest short story. She's conflicted about the relationship, which Haggis telegraphs by asking Wilde to stride down the hallway toward Michael's hotel room grinning and then abruptly frown. Anna doesn't just run hot and cold, she runs volcanic and arctic. She first threatens to fly home, then she and Michael have sex with the door open, then she rages that she can't be seen walking to his room, and then she walks back to it anyway, naked under a bathrobe that she hands him before scampering bare-assed down a flight of stairs.

In the real world, she'd be committed. In Third Person, she's commonplace. This is, after all, a movie in which Brody's traveling businessman offers his hotel room to a hooker he just met who loathes him, and then, when she refuses to take it, decides to sleep next to her at the train station. Everyone's inner compass is so broken that we, too, change course: When crazy is normal, forgive the characters and blame their creator.

Eventually, we realize that the oddities of the script aren't just sloppy mistakes, but details that at the film's end might suddenly have a point. Yet what should alarm the writer-director is that for most of the running time it's a struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt. When the head-scratching impossibilities are more irritating than intriguing, does the last-second explanation outweigh the two hours we've spent rolling our eyes?

To make things worse, in Third Person he falls into the trap of writing about a writer whose wordsmithing abilities are described as brilliant while the words we actually hear are dreck.

By inviting the audience into his brain, Haggis is gambling dangerously on his own image. A writer doesn't just reveal himself in the broad strokes; he also reveals himself in the throwaway details, like Third Person's insistence that all Italian people are assholes and idiots. As a director, Haggis doesn't seem to think audiences are much smarter.

It's kind of happy-sad, like watching a kid you knew as a toddler graduate from high school: Chris Evans, seemingly destined to be a boy forever, is now officially a grown-up. In Bong Joon-ho's futuristic snowbummer Snowpiercer, the Korean director's first English-language film, Evans plays the leader of a group of have-nots who rebel against a bunch of haves, all stuck together on a high-speed train that perpetually circles the earth, which a new Ice Age has rendered uninhabitable. Looking gaunt and bony beneath his drab, baggy threads, a knit cap pulled low on his brow, Edge-style, Evans is more like a cheerless hobo than an overgrown bro. Is that really a good thing?

Evans, a charming and rambunctious actor, should be allowed to grow up; no one can play Captain America or Johnny Storm forever. But Snowpiercer needlessly weighs Evans down, dragging us along with him. Even as dystopian dramas go, the picture is arid and lusterless in its more serious moments and unpleasantly kitschy when it tries to soar over the top. Not even Tilda Swinton, as a ruthless Margaret Thatcher stand-in with a prosthetic overbite, can keep it on the rails. She's rendered in tight, wrinkle-intensifying close-ups that flash-fry any wit or foxiness she might have brought to the role.

 

Swinton's outsized character, Mason, is a sort of prison warden in sensible woolen suits and enormous eyeglasses. She shows up early, a promise of more overkill to come. It's been 17 years since a massive freeze-out, caused by an attempt to reverse global warning, has wiped out most of life on earth. The few human survivors have been herded onto a climate-controlled train that protects them from the sub-zero temperatures outside, though there's so much cruelty inside that some passengers must surely wonder if it's worth it. The front of the train harbors society's crème de la crème, people with plenty of food as well as access to beauty parlors, schooling for their piggy children, and a host of decadent nightclubby diversions that require them to writhe around in New Wavey outfits. In the back of the train languish the undesirables, a bedraggled bunch played by the likes of Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell, who are forced to gnaw on shiny black "protein bars" that, we learn, are made out of something you really wouldn't want to eat. Quite a few of these underclass citizens, among them John Hurt's wise and wizened Gilliam, are missing arms and legs, for reasons that will eventually become clear. Evans' Curtis has had enough of this rich-versus-poor divide: After enlisting the help of a drugged-out security specialist (played by Bong regular Song Kang-ho), he hopes to forge his way to the front and raise holy hell.

Snowpiercer is based on a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and even if you don't know the source material, you can see how it plays right into Bong's meticulousness as a director: He worked from detailed story boards, and it shows — the narrative moves from scene to scene with an almost defiant clarity, a welcome relief from the jumbled overload of so many mainstream movies based on comic books. His vision is a distinctly 1980s brand of futurism, carrying whiffs of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (Gilliam, presumably, inspired the name of Hurt's character) and Michael Radford's mostly forgotten George Orwell adaptation 1984 (in which, incidentally, Hurt starred). And the Snowpiercer itself, bullet-sleek but also marvelously articulated, like a jointed snake toy, is a nifty futuristic marvel: Bong comes up with some beautifully vertiginous point-of-view shots as the train, looking precariously lissome, zips along a track perched high above chilly, snow-covered valleys.

But the picture's aggressive bleakness, not to mention its sociocultural theme with a capital T, becomes tiresome long before Ed Harris, as the mastermind behind this whole socially striated train thing, shows up in a silk bathrobe (though admittedly, he does look pretty rad in it). Like Bong's previous movies, among them Mother and The Host, there's a streak of nastiness running through Snowpiercer. The violence is humorless and blunt. The idea, maybe, is that watching the setup for a particularly brutal amputation is somehow supposed to be meaningful because it's an accurate reflection of the depravity of humankind. But sometimes a limb whacking is just a limb whacking. Don't try to tell us it's good for us, like one of those protein bars made of — never mind.

By Amy Nicholson

Earth to Echo is a slender kiddie flick about a quartet of preteens and their palm-sized alien pal that's at once bland, well-intentioned and utterly terrifying about the mental development of modern children. As in the most honest kids films, our 5-foot heroes admit to being isolated, unhappy and cowed by the adult world. Their Nevada suburb will be torn down tomorrow, scattering these three best friends — braggadocios Tuck (the one-named Astro from X-Factor), chubby and cowardly Munch (Reese Hartwig) and unthreateningly handsome Alex (Teo Halm) — to different schools, and plucking the cute blonde (Ella Wahlestedt) they all crush on out of their universe before she even knew they shared one.

On their last night together, the guys dupe their parents with a fake slumber party, reroute the grown-ups' incoming calls to Munch's cell, and bike off into the desert to track down a blinking treasure mysteriously beamed to their smartphone maps. (Sir Walter Raleigh would look up from his battered scrolls and sadly shake his head.) The big-mouthed Tuck, a tyke who's always blurting his own name like the abandoned son of Kanye West, has brought along a video camera, as his interest in the quest itself is dwarfed by the possibility of shooting the next viral hit. After all, what's the point of meeting an alien if there's no record of it on YouTube?

Director Dave Green is less a feature filmmaker than a juggler of screens. The found-footage gimmick — Earth to Echo's background canvas — is simply a gateway that allows for the visual shorthand of the boys shoving their phones at the lens. Instead of plunging into the woods, they stare at their GPS while swashbuckling through strip malls and the occasional small-town Main Street. Occasionally, Green zooms out for the Google Earth view of their quest, complete with an arrow pointing toward their location. The result feels both techno-immediate and emotionally distancing: There are so many cameras between us and the action that it's like attending a Pink Floyd laser light show and watching the magic through the recorder on your iPhone.

 

Perhaps Green and his writer, Henry Gayden, think that electronic artifice is the best way to tell a story to tweens. (And adults who can't watch a movie at home without playing on their own devices should think twice before we tsk-tsk.) More likely, however, they're just savvily, and perhaps cynically, seeking to be the first to surf what I fear will be the new cinematic language: automatic Google Glass.

At least their alien feels at home in this digital new world. Though it's from outer space, it's retrofitted for Radio Shack: It speaks in ring tones and uses their phone cameras for eyes. Forget the old man wrinkles of E.T. Earth to Echo seems to have found through focus-testing that children no longer want blood or bile — they want sanitized bleeps. Instead of wooing their discovery with Reese's Pieces, these kids dote over his battery charge, and when they attempt to strengthen his legs with pen caps, we're caught off-guard by the fact that these kids still have pens. The thing is so cute they inevitably fall in love — it resembles a robotic lemur — but at the same time, we suspect they can't quite accept that it's sentient. In a dramatic near-death moment, one boy cries, "Please, you have to work!" not the biologically accurate, "Please, you have to live!"

Their new friend sends them on a quest to find the missing parts needed to help launch his spaceship. They are scattered everywhere that young boys find mysterious and alarming: a bar, a pawn shop, a dark arcade and a beautiful babe's bedroom. They ping around Nevada fast enough that there's scarcely time to question the plot. (How on Earth did a piece of the alien's key get in a girl's jewelry box?) On their heels are some not-scary-enough adults who are most alarming when they forcibly escort the gang to their control center, which houses an entire wall mounted with commandeered cellphones pinned in neat rows like dead butterflies.

Earth to Echo has scant thrills on its own terms, but is deeply disturbing in the margins. Without chagrin or alarm bells, it posits that the youth of today are useless without their pocket computers — when swiping a getaway car, the first thing they do is Google how to drive. The film's final thesis is that distance between friends, be it suburban or planetary, doesn't matter as long as you can text. Earth to Echo has officially cursed the next generation to hermetic solitude. On a baser level, it blithely takes for granted that children trust gizmos more than grown-ups. Despite a government worker warning them — correctly — that the alien's underground spaceship is so big that it could rip up their town like a dandelion, they barely blink before continuing to rank this strange being's happiness over their parents' houses, the triumph of the childish good over the ethical right. Future intergalactic overlords: Forget bombing the White House, just ask a hacker whiz kid to do you a solid.

To call Roger Ebert one of the great populist film critics is to damn him with faint praise. Though he took pride in working for the scrappier of the two Chicago dailies, the Sun-Times, and though we do have him to thank — or curse —f or popularizing the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism, his approach to moviegoing was actually refined. When he died last year, he left behind both a body of writing and a way of looking at movies that opened them wide to the world. So many critics write to show off how much they know — it's a way of keeping you, whoever "you" are, at arm's length. Ebert wrote to let you in. To read him is to feel you're pulling up a chair.

Director Steve James captures that quality, and more, in Life Itself, his documentary about Ebert's life and, notably, these last few years of it, after recurring health problems and multiple surgeries left the critic unable to speak. That didn't mean Ebert lost his voice: He was one of the first old-school print critics to approach the Internet as something other than an unfriendly alien, and in some ways we all got to know him much better in his later years, through his blog and his Twitter feed. James — the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters — gives us a sense of Ebert as a man who kept reinventing life as he went along, out of necessity, sure, though he also took some pleasure in adapting. It couldn't always have been easy, but that, too, is part of the story.

 

James picks up all the salient and interesting details without getting too bogged down in hagiography, beginning with his subject's childhood in Urbana, Illinois, in a household that subscribed to three newspapers just for him. After graduating from the University of Illinois (he'd hoped for Harvard, but his working-class parents couldn't afford it), where he was editor of the school paper, Ebert intended to go on to graduate school. Needing to rustle up some money, he thought he'd make a pit stop at the Sun-Times for a few years. He ended up staying the rest of his life, first working as a reporter but early on inheriting the job of film critic. He won a Pulitzer in 1975, a time when journalism's most coveted prize was rarely awarded to film critics.

Life Itself (based on Ebert's memoir of the same name) is also a portrait of two marriages: Ebert met his wife, Chaz, when he was 50; their union was tested by the most devastating of circumstances, but James captures the casual, bantering devotion between them, even during what must have been the roughest times. Ebert's "other" marriage wasn't so harmonious but perhaps just as significant, at least to his audience: Most non-Chicagoans got to know Ebert through the television show he co-hosted with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, which ran in various incarnations from the mid-1970s until Siskel's death in 1999. James captures the friction between the two — it's especially apparent in an on-air disagreement over, of all things, Benji the Hunted — but he also shows how all that mutual abrasion, year after year, made the two men almost closer than family. (And maybe you didn't know that Siskel was at one point a pal of Hugh Hefner's, frequently riding around in the Big Bunny jet. I didn't.)

James calls on all sorts of luminaries, from the worlds of critics and filmmakers alike: New York Times critic A.O. Scott delicately explains Ebert's attraction to the films of Russ Meyer, making the case that movies offer all sorts of pleasures, including the "earthier" ones. (Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer's trashily magnificent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a few clips are included here.) Life Itself also flirts with the idea that Ebert's friendships with filmmakers may have sometimes caused him to pull his punches, although one of those friends, Martin Scorsese (also a producer of Life Itself), doesn't seem to feel that way: He gives testimony to how stung he felt by Ebert's negative review of The Color of Money.

Scorsese is also quick to note, though, that as a critic Ebert was never unnecessarily cutting or unkind. In real life, too, even those who knew him only casually, as I did, would probably agree. Life Itself seems about as comprehensive as it could be, though perhaps it doesn't adequately stress Ebert's generosity toward younger critics, even those not so much younger than himself. I knew Roger mostly through the occasional email exchange, but one thing that always struck me — beyond the self-evident fact that he was such a marvelous, straightforward, openhearted writer — was his capacity for delight, a quality I often find lacking in the world of film critics, a bunch who tend to take themselves way too seriously. When Roger learned, a few years back, that my husband had bought me as a Christmas gift an original poster for Camelot —one of the most beautiful works of movie-poster art, by one of its greatest artists, Bob Peak — he seemed as excited about it as I was. When he found out that my gift wasn't the standard American one-sheet but a huge French grande, measuring an incroyable 47 by 62 inches, his review was glowing and succinct: "That's way cooler."


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