FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

Neither one of these two indie films were even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them!  Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again are now available on VOD.

Beyond the Lights 

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The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.

The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.

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Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters are more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.

Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploit female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wear in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.

BeyondtheLights_StillsBy the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.

Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continue to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.

The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. Pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn-out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully-invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sung a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!

This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!

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Begin Again

BeginAgainBnrThis movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.

BeginAgainStillsThe film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.

I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.

The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!

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Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?