writer /director

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company | Daily Texan Staff

Writer/director John Carney’s latest film, “Once,” felt like a miracle — an intimate little film thats shaggy story and grainy visuals were held together by the sheer power of its music and performances. Carney’s long-awaited follow-up, “Begin Again,” is a more polished film and features Keira Knightley demonstrating an accomplished, gorgeous singing voice. Unfortunately, the film’s story and style are distractingly similar to “Once,” and despite its charms, “Begin Again” never manages to escape that familiarity.

“Begin Again” opens in a grungy New York bar, as Greta (Knightley) is summoned to the stage for an impromptu performance of a sad little song she wrote. The film quickly backtracks, telling the backstory of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music exec in the throes of a breakdown when he happens to be in the bar that night. He is inspired both by Greta’s music and Greta, a songwriter who followed her boyfriend/partner Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) to New York, only to be dumped through song. When Dan approaches Greta she’s initially skeptical, but he eventually convinces her to record an unconventional album on the streets of New York.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are both spectacularly charming in the right role, and Carney displays an apt understanding of what makes them worth watching. Ruffalo’s down-on-his-luck music exec is the kind of sadsack role the actor brings such humanity to. He also shares a crackling chemistry with Knightley, who’s never been quite so radiant and likable before. Knightley conjures up instant sympathy for Greta with her moving opening number, but she’s hugely effective throughout, be it with the dawning horror that her boyfriend’s newest song is about another woman, or when she gives sincere advice to Dan’s daughter (“True Grit”’s Hailee Steinfeld).

 What made “Once” so memorable was the fantastic original songs by stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and while Hansard was one of many contributors to the music in “Begin Again,” there’s nothing here that’s quite as moving as the former film’s Oscar-winning ballad “Falling Slowly.” Here, the songs struggle to rise above generic make-out jams, especially when Levine, who proves to be a fine but unspectacular performer, takes over for the big final number. Still, the songs are prevented in an innovative fashion either through flashbacks, or through the impromptu, energetic recording sessions held on the streets of New York City. Knightley does a great job bringing the music to life, and is especially winning singing her way through an impulsive drunk-dial to her ex, but can’t make most of the songs stand out in a crowded soundtrack.

Most of “Begin Again”’s shortcomings come from its inability to distinguish itself, both within its genre and within its director’s small body of work. Carney’s got a strong knack for undercutting sexual tension with a deeply felt yearning, but the romances in his films never quite go anywhere, and while that felt like a beautiful, meaningful decision by the characters in “Once,” it feels like a retread here.

Though “Begin Again” is too familiar by a large measure, it still deflects enough expectations of the romance genre that it stands out in that regard. The film thrives on the infectious joy of collaboration and creativity, and Carney perfectly captures a number of small moments between its wholly authentic characters. While “Begin Again” is no powerhouse of emotion, its charming performances and emotional musical numbers make it a worthy if forgettable use of its brisk 104 minutes.

Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Roger (Camron Owens) are up to no good in Kat Candler's "Hellion." Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of press | Daily Texan Staff

With buzz for the film steadily building out of its Sundance and SXSW screenings, “Hellion” is one of the most heavily hyped indie releases of the summer. Not only is it Aaron Paul’s most substantial role since the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” but it’s also a great showcase for the talents of UT professor and writer/director Kat Candler, who establishes herself here as a promising voice in indie cinema. A downbeat but beautifully acted exploration of grief and deeply felt defeats, “Hellion” marks an impressive third feature for Candler.

Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, the titular troublemaker whose antics in the aftermath of his mother’s death cause Child Protective Services to take a closer look at his family. His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is falling apart, blinded by grief as he fumbles through life, and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), is taken away and put in the custody of their aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).

“Hellion” was filmed in the port cities of Texas, and Candler wrings plentiful atmosphere out of her setting, creating a world brimming with rage and grief, setting the mood with energetic heavy metal music. The film’s most energetic scenes show Jacob and Wes wreaking havoc to shrieking guitars, but Candler is just as effective in the quieter moments. Her storytelling is remarkably efficient, especially in the opening stretches of the film, which forgo excessive dialogue and allow the measured but emphatic performances to tell the audience what’s important to the characters and what the stakes of the story will be.

Of the many great performances in “Hellion,” the best is also the riskiest. Candler had to gamble on Josh Wiggins, who had never acted before, but Wiggins’ pained portrayal of a boy reeling as his family collapses is heartwrenching. Wiggins sells every moment of confused rage and regret, and plays beautifully off of Deke Garner, who plays his younger brother. Garner was in the short film that Candler expanded into “Hellion,” and proves to be a skilled, understated young actor. His performance is surprisingly complex, as Wes thrives on having maternal attention again but remains guilty about leaving his brother and father behind.

Among the adult performances, Aaron Paul continues his streak of playing the tortured character he made his name with on “Breaking Bad.” It’s a smart bit of casting, asking what happens when the train wreck character Paul specializes in is responsible for human lives, and despite an occasionally spotty accent, his performance is painfully raw.

Juliette Lewis is just as good but plays the film’s most problematic character. Rather than defining the plot, Pam is defined by its needs, and she’s often cruelly antagonistic because the film needs some conflict. Candler does a good job making Pam’s irrational villainy feel like the pettiness that often pops up in tumultuous family conflicts, but Lewis’ performance is much better suited to the moments of tenderness between Wes and Pam than to the ugly side she shows when dealing with the other characters.

If there’s a major complaint to be filed against “Hellion,” it’s in the film’s finale, which dramatically raises the tension and stakes only to end on a fairly inconclusive note. While the main character’s future is reasonably easy to assume, the issue of Wes’ custody is left frustratingly unresolved. The ending is also relentlessly bleak, offering the slightest of silver linings, and after the painful 90 minutes that preceded it, a hint of redemption or happiness for the characters would have been appreciated.

It’s a testament to the power of the story and characters Candler has created that any issues with “Hellion” arise from the conflict she injects into the film. The characters are so well drawn and the actors portraying them are so perfectly tuned that it’s genuinely painful to watch them put through Candler’s emotional wringer. “Hellion” is a savvy bit of summer counter-programming, an impressive declaration of voice that brings an honest perspective to a painful story that easily lives up to the hype.

Candler will be present for Q&A at the 5:10 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Saturday and Sunday showings of "Hellion" at the Violet Crown.

"Hellion"
Director: Kat Candler
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 99 minutes

Actor Johnny Depp will be in Austin this weekend for the premiere of “The Rum Diary” at the Austin Film Festival.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Yesterday marked the beginning of this year’s Austin Film Festival. The festival will run through Oct. 27 and seeks to balance local flavor with Hollywood flair. Among the many events that The Daily Texan will be on hand to cover are several red carpet premieres at the Paramount Theatre that are being billed as the highlights of this year’s festival.

“The Rum Diary”

Premieres: Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.
Writer/director Bruce Robinson and actor Johnny Depp will screen their adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1998 novel of the same name. The film stars Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a freelance journalist who moves from New York to San Juan in the late-1950s to write for a newspaper. Kemp soon becomes obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), the fiancé of ruthless property developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). When Sanderson recruits Kemp to write spin for his scrupulous enterprise, Kemp has to decide to either oblige him or bury the man engaged to the object of his desires.

It has all the hallmarks of a Hunter S. Thompson narrative with the main characters being mostly crazed, alcoholic maniacs — but don’t expect another “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Best known for British cult classic “Withnail and I,” Bruce Robinson has a wholly different approach to filmmaking than “Fear and Loathing” director Terry Gilliam. Look for a more layered offering that focuses on the relationship between comedy
and tragedy.

An encore screening of “The Rum Diary” will be led by Depp, Robinson and UT radio-television-film faculty on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the SAC Auditorium. The Q&A session that follows the screening will be broadcast via satellite.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

Premieres: Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m.
Writers/directors Jay and Mark Duplass will present the regional premiere of their emotional comedy “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” The film stars Jason Segel as a borderline agoraphobic man living in his parent’s basement whose journey begins when he interprets a strange coincidence as a sign that he might have discovered his fate. The movie also stars Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer. As filmmakers, the Duplass brothers are best known for their films “The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead,” and “Cyrus,” but Mark Duplass is probably most recognizable from his starring role as Pete Eckhart on the FX comedy series “The League.” Jay Duplass, a UT alum, is known primarily as a director, though the two share writing, directing and producing credits on nearly every one of their films — including “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” You can expect more of the same deadpan humor and pitiably endearing characters that are mainstays of the Duplass’ films.

“Sal”

Premieres: Oct. 23 at 12 p.m.
Writer/director/actor/producer/professor/painter/pilot/model/musician James Franco will screen his unconventional biopic of actor Sal Mineo, the teen star of “Rebel Without a Cause.” The film chronicles Mineo’s final hours on February 12, 1976, the day his life was tragically cut short by a senseless act of violence. During the Q&A session scheduled to immediately follow the film, Franco will probably write, direct, act in and produce the sequel.

“Beavis & Butt-Head”

Premieres: Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.
Series creator Mike Judge will preview about an hour’s worth of new episodes of his iconic animated series about two presumably orphaned teenagers whose lives comprise mainly of watching music videos, broken up with bouts of delinquency. The new episodes, however, will see Beavis and Butt-Head’s viewing preferences shift away from music videos and toward the cultural black holes of “Jersey Shore,” Ultimate Fighting and YouTube. MTV will begin airing fresh episodes of the revived series on Oct. 27 at 9 p.m.

Printed on Friday 21, 2011 as: Austin Film Fest gathers basket of cinematic talent