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Week in Film: Begin Again, Whitey and More

06/24/2014 02:47 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014

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I wrote a long piece a couple of years ago, about why I refused to review the third Transformers movie: because the first two sucked, because Michael Bay is the Antichrist, because life is too short to spend watching make-believe computer-animated robots fight each other. I could go on and on.

I'm not seeing this week's fourth Transformers film either. Luckily for me, the studio thinks so much of its chance with critics that the only press preview isn't until Wednesday night -- and I'll be away at a film festival. (Watch this space for coverage.)

Fortunately, there are other, less abusive, more intriguing films hitting screens this week, so here goes:

Begin Again comes from writer-director John Carney, who burst forth with Once a few years ago. This film, which stars Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo (among others), captures the same blend of wistful emotions and life-affirming musical energy as that 2006 hit.

Told in complicated chronology, which jumps back and forth in time over the course of a couple weeks, the film centers on Dan (Ruffalo), a floundering record executive, and Greta (Knightley), a songwriter with a failing relationship. Their paths cross one night at a Brooklyn open-mike, where she sings an original song that knocks him out.

We then see their recent lives to that moment: Dan, losing his job at the record company he co-founded, for various divorce-driven bits of acting out; Greta, who followed her pop-star boyfriend (Adam Levine) to the U.S. from the U.K., dealing with their breakup. She wrote the song about him -- but it hit home with Dan, who decides he can turn it into a hit and her into a star.

The rest of the film focuses on his execution of an idea: recording her songs with a live band in strange locations all over Manhattan. They play and sing on rooftops, in apartments, even on rowboats in Central Park. It's a cute gimmick, mostly offering visual novelty moments by setting performances of the songs (mostly by Gregg Alexander, Carney and cowriters) in unusual environments. In other words, it's a musical, but they aren't bursting into song spontaneously.

The heart of this film is, in fact, its heart -- that same examination of the intimate fulfillment from making music well with another person that was at the center of Once. Indeed, it was originally called Can a Song Save Your Life?, a title that really does capture the urgency of the film.

The will-they/won't-they romantic aspect of the plot is poignant and more fleshed out than in Once, though that's not necessarily a positive. The sense of longing that pours from both Knightley and Ruffalo is nicely calibrated between the search for love and the love of pursuing the muse. It's a sweet, engaging film which, if a tad too shaggy, is a warm, funny change of pace from most summer fare.

And a few more:

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger: Joe Berlinger may be our premier true-crime documentarian (though he has many other arrows in his quiver) and, with this film, he has bitten off a bitter, complicated tale.

This review continues on my website.