Sing Street Review: High Note


Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Stars: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen

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Release date: July 21st, 2016

Distributor: The Weinstein Company, Lionsgate

Country: Ireland, USA, UK

Running time: 105 minutes


4/5

Best part: The musical numbers.

Worst part: The parents’ subplot.

Two of cinema’s most polarising genres are the musical and the dramedy. Both tug at specific parts of the brain and heart, they relish the freedom of fantasy and, most importantly, they light up the screen and our lives. However, their high-on-life energy and emotional-rollercoaster stories repel people. Sing Street is a very rare gem – bringing both genres together with class and textbook precision.

Sing Street is 2016’s beacon of hope for independent cinema in the big, wide world of movies. Film buffs everywhere are praying it receives the attention it deserves. Come awards time, it could be this year’s Brooklyn. This Irish musical-dramedy takes us to south inner-city Dublin in 1985. The Lalor family, lead  by Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), is falling apart. The film’s protagonist, youngest son Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is thrown from private school into a rough public institution. Sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) eldest brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) are difficult to connect with. Worse still, Synge Street CBS is the new hell. Conor’s run-ins with bullies, rules and mean catholic headmasters play out before he, Darren (Ben Carolan), instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) and several other rip-roaring youngsters form a rock-pop school band.

Writer/director John Carney has had an interesting career; Once gave the indie-drama a new face lift. However, Begin Again was a mushy, middling dramedy saved by its cracking cast and soundtrack. Make no mistake, Carney refuses to stray from convention here. His script follows similar plot, character and emotional beats as his previous efforts. Like the aforementioned flicks, Sing Street sees a white man struggling with his psyche and emotions, meets a pretty girl (Raphina (Lucy Boynton)), creates some music before getting his groove back. His focus on words over action recalls the early days of Woody Allen and Cameron Crowe,  without leaning too heavily on them. Its subplots and side characters elevate it above similar musicals and dramedies. Conor’s interactions with Raphina have a refreshing, bittersweet glow. However, he and Brendan deliver the movie’s most light-hearted and witty chunks.

Carney’s frenetic and captivating style overwhelms the screen. Every rhythm, beat and flourish highlights his palpable affection for music. The drama leaps effortlessly between the band’s rise to prominence and the family’s swift decline. Lingering sequences move through every aspect of songwriting, recording, music video producing and touring. However, his dialogue is a little too on the nose – prophesising like a hippie at Woodstock. References to Duran, Duran, Spandau Ballet and everyone in between showcase his  glowing sense of nostalgia. In fairness, the period detail, settings and costumes light up every frame. The young cast members also add to the movie’s gripping comedic timing and pure enthusiasm.

Sing Street is, from go to woe, is a comfortable, optimistic jaunt between two genres. Carney, for better or worse, has a style and philosophy worth considering. His latest effort delivers a stack of youthful performers, luscious visual flourishes and 80s numbers.

Verdict: A boisterous musical-dramedy.

’71 Review – Worst. Day. Ever.


Director: Yann Demange

Writer: Gregory Burke

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Paul Anderson


Release date: October 10th, 2014

Distributors: StudioCanal, Roadside Attractions

Country: UK

Running time: 99 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Jack O’Connell.

Worst part: The generic villains.

Each cinema industry has its share of touchy topics used to puzzle history buffs, attract film buffs, and educate mass audiences. These subjects – marked by historical events and/or societal, cultural, political, and economic issues – make for haunting stories. Vying for Oscar contention, Hollywood’s offerings depict shocking accounts of harrowing stories. Utilising their resources, other countries – no matter which side of the western/eastern hemisphere their on – seek to primarily inform viewers.

Jack O’Connell.

Surprisingly, groundbreaking British feature ’71, despite the controversial road taken, never focuses specifically on its subject. Despite the inconceivable issues effecting Northern Ireland, the movie side-steps anything remotely distressing or subjective. Overlooking the anger, tyranny, and sadness, the movie instead tackles action-thriller tropes to tell a simple yet effective tale. This 1971-set feature, presenting itself like prime film-festival material, starts off like most military dramas. Training for warfare, British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) believes he can help change war-torn Northern Ireland. Shifting comfortably between tests, the heroic grunt is chosen for a dangerous and life-altering mission. The soldier follows orders and delivers impressive results without breaking a sweat. Beyond this, Hook continually visits his former children’s home to see his younger brother – and remaining loved one – Derren (Henry Verity). One day, as his base is transported to Belfast, the conflict reaches its most vicious and distressing point yet. Arriving the night before, the unit’s optimistic leader, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), expects absolute perfection from his fresh-faced recruits. However, as the unit descends upon Falls Road, their inclusion is met with urine-and-faeces-filled balloons and bags thrown by local youths. Conducting house-by-house incursions, the unit is met with angry residents and hostile rioters.

O’Connell in action.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan. As the riot reaches breaking point, Hook and another soldier, Thommo (Jack Lowden), become from the group and left for dead during the retreat. From the first action sequence onwards, ’71, set one year before Bloody Sunday, depicts a vacuous war zone between several motivated, honour-starved factions. Like Hook, the narrative runs rampant through action clichés, visual metaphors, and tough characters. Unlike most IRA/Troubles movies, designed to discuss specific events in detail (Bloody Sunday, Hidden Agenda), the movie throws the geo-political/ethno-nationalist conflict into the background. Some may see ’71 as a gross misjudgment. Across the kinetic 99-minute run-time, whilst dodging the “too soon” argument, we follow our able-bodied lead throughout the worst day of his life. At first, he’s a confident soldier embracing the campaign’s many challenges. Lacking political or social viewpoints, the movie rests squarely on Hook’s shoulders. Focusing on rebellious children and adolescent soldiers, this action-thriller crafts a refreshing and prescient take on its resonant subject matter. Presenting hidden truths and notable viewpoints, ’71 objectively depicts each relevant faction. Delivering vital information through exposition, it depicts the Catholic Nationalists, Protestant Loyalists, Irish Republican Army, Military Reaction Force, and Royal Ulster Constabulary carefully and considerately.

“Posh c*nts telling thick c*unts to kill poor c*nts.” (Eamon (Richard Dormer), ’71)

Our tried-and-tested hero.

Aiming for ‘grey’, its realistic take depicts eery streets lit by torched cars and molotov cocktails. Stepping around bad blood and cruel motivations, ’71 becomes a survival-action flick similar to The Raid: Redemption, Assault on Precinct 13, and Die Hard. Unlike most copy-cats, it embraces each trope whilst elevating the tempo. Avoiding Behind Enemy Lines‘ jingoistic aftertaste, it balances style and substance succinctly. TV director Yann Demange handles his first feature’s £5 million budget effectively. Experimenting with unique camera, lighting, and sound techniques, his style fits the narrative like a uniform. Utilising shaky-cam and quick cuts, the chase sequences ratchet up the tension. As our factions track Hook down, Yemange heightens the grit and stakes. After locals Brigid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamon (Richard Dormer) rescue our hero, the last act turns their apartment block into a labyrinthine maze. Despite the thrills, its contrivances and implausibles spoil the fun. In addition, the over-the-top antagonists distort the narrative. However, the movie’s stellar performances outweigh the negatives. O’Connell – hitting the big-time in 2014 with this, 300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up, and Unbroken – is revelatory as the out-of-his depth antagonist. Conveying a plethora of emotions, his performance bolsters the adrenaline-charged, man-against-the-world role. In addition, Sean Harris and Paul Anderson excel as two MRF officers teetering on the edge. Meanwhile, David Wilmot delivers several laughs as a slimy rebel leader.

Tackling this harrowing conflict with style and gusto, ’71 is a great first effort and brilliant slice of escapism. The movie – switching between war-drama, political-thriller, and hardcore action flick – is an exercise in controlled chaos. Refusing to take sides, this action-thriller never bogs itself down in Left or Right viewpoints. In fact, this modest and invigorating effort is summed up by one line: “Posh cnts telling thick cnts to kill poor c*nts”.

Verdict: A potent and intensifying action-thriller.

Philomena Review – Trial & Resolution


Director: Stephen Frears 

Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)

Stars: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Kennedy Clark


Release date: December 26th, 2013

Distributors: The Weinstein Company, Pathe

Countries: UK, Ireland

Running time: 98 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Coogan and Dench’s chemistry.

Worst part: The wavering messages.

From Philomena‘s opening frame, its pressing arguments and perspectives fascinated me. I’ll explain why, despite my obvious and enthusiastic subjectivity, by deliberating on journalism itself. As one of history’s most intriguing and necessary professions, great journalistic endeavours, as Philomena suggests, can destroy organisations, illuminate fascinating people, and build glorious monuments to human potential. However, as this dramedy proudly asserts, harmful preconceptions and controversial actions destroy journalism’s reputation. Despite Philomena‘s wavering viewpoints, journalism’s overwhelming power and influence turns this dramedy’s weakest aspects into intriguing intricacies.  

Steve Coogan.

To define this argument, I’ll deliberate upon the media’s involvement with Philomena‘s creation. In 2009, polarising British actor/comedian/ writer Steve Coogan looked through the Guardian Weekend Magazine’s online hub. While net surfing, he found one of notorious journalist Martin Sixsmith’s human-interest articles. The article, The Catholic Church Sold my Child, remarkably transfixed Coogan beyond online media’s boundaries. After reading Sixsmith’s book on the same subject, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Coogan obtained the rights. Coogan’s immense pride and valour become cognitive to this adaptation’s production. Based on Sixsmith’s intensifying words, Philomena is an impactful, charming, and distinctive dramedy. The movie immediately solidifies this story’s emotional stranglehold. Sixsmith (Coogan), at his general practitioner’s office, delivers reasons for his significantly morose state. Fired from a Labour government adviser position, Sixsmith faces damaging legal issues. With government and media officials staring him down, his reputation needs a conquering boost. Conversing at a friend’s party, he discovers a meaningful article idea. The movie then leaps into Philomena Lee(Judi Dench)’s haunting life story. With flashbacks revealing her heart-aching journey, her elderly self is a repressed and stupefying individual. Conversing with Philomena and her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), Sixsmith discovers this story’s glorious potential. Travelling across Britain, Ireland, and the USA, Sixsmith and Philomena become contrasting yet inseparable buddies.

Judi Dench.

Despite the tiresomely cliched premise, the movie examines the story’s punishing twists and turns. Receiving disgraceful condemnation from critics and the Catholic Church, Philomena organically shifts from comedically fruitful road-trip dramedy to heart-breaking mystery. Thankfully, it’s never afraid to be honest, thorough, and revelatory. The narrative, fuelled by comedic sensibilities, hurriedly delves into the story’s broadly accessible aspects. Certain scenes, peppered with awkward silences and cutting dialogue, establish this situation’s blatant absurdity. Here, Sixsmith’s perspective becomes a stable and likeable resource. Sixsmith’s motivations, turning friends into enemies, are presented as cynical and disenfranchising facets. In the first third, the story divulges into clues and characters important to Philomena’s horrifying ordeal. Handling unique characteristics, the narrative distorts and enhances road-trip comedy cliches. Replacing cars with planes, this journey turns into a haunting and expansive odyssey. Sixsmith and Philomena, divulging into deft exposition and thought-provoking revelations, bond over this expansive research project. Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons) thoughtfully examines potent human connections whilst leaping between genres. With valuable docudramas, romantic adventures, and kinetic comedies outlining his filmography, Frears’ style combines range and intelligence. Here, he becomes startlingly infatuated with the main characters. Shifting gracefully from comedic hijinks to sickening darkness, his movie illuminates life’s most ingenious and refreshing moments. Surprisingly, this Best Picture nominee contains other contenders’ tropes. Featuring a discomforting road trip (Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis), wacky character relationships (Saving Mr Banks), and socio-political messages (Dallas Buyers Club), this entertaining concoction becomes the Weinstein Company’s pet project.

“But I don’t wanna hate people. I don’t wanna be like you. Look at you.” (Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), Philomena).

Our two plucky heroes.

On celluloid, Catholicism, journalism, and odd-couple relationships are meaningful and understandable subjects. This movie, righteously and ambitiously, delves into all three topics. From the hysterically witty opening, the movie states and examines its blunt agenda. Establishing its lead character as a brash and abrasive journalist, this docudrama almost delves into heavy-handedness and cynicism. Unafraid of criticism, the movie delivers vicious editors, scandals, and the ratings vs. integrity debate. Despite presenting multiple perspectives, the movie hurriedly changes its mind at opportune moments. Not to be outdone, the movie’s atheism vs. religion debate is an affectionate and thought-provoking strand. As this heart-breaking narrative’s twists are unveiled, religion’s pros and cons become vital to Philomena’s character arc. With the convent becoming a prison-like fortress, the nuns are necessarily depicted as horrific cretins. Shockingly, we become valuable witnesses to 50-year-old crimes. Ethics, principles, and convent rules are strictly enforced by Philomena’s church. Despite prejudices and cultural indifference, organised religion viciously clashes with modernity. Despite the rich subjectivity, the movie’s gripping conclusion allows for unique and dexterous interpretations. Despite its intelligent viewpoints and phenomenal plot-strands, the two lead actors heartily grapple this project. Drawing large audiences into this well-meaning dramedy, the two leads lend wit, charm, and malice to this unforgettable story. Coogan, a discomfortingly polarising comedic actor, becomes a delightfully brash presence here. As a writer, producer, and lead actor, Coogan’s intentions and verve are mercifully injected into the final product. Here, his sarcastic aura boosts this enjoyable narrative. Playing a psychologically and morally damaged character, Coogan elevates this familiar role. Alluding to the News of the World scandal, the character conveys Coogan’s agreeable viewpoints and forceful determination. Delivering another Oscar-worthy turn, Dench launches head-on into Philomena’s destructive journey. Dench, as this sympathetic character, lends tangibility and potency to confronting revelations. In addition, without being irritating, Philomena becomes a wide-eyed companion for the world-weary Sixsmith. Explaining tiny details about loveable novels, her optimism and glee deliver several hysterical moments. Like most travellers, Philomena’s curiosity pushes her through pressing situations.

Despite the wavering agenda and conventional road-trip narrative, Philomena contains enough charm, laugh-out-loud moments, and emotionally powerful surprises to elevate it above similarly light-hearted dramedies. Outdoing their previous performances and dramedies, Coogan and Dench become an intriguing, eclectic, and comedically savvy duo. This odd couple – arguing incessantly over politics, ethics, religion, and personality ticks – delivers understandable moments and heartening identities. As this Oscar race’s dark horse, Philomena is charming and appropriate enough to compete with its enrapturing competition.

Verdict: An enlightening and impactful dramedy.

Shadow Dancer Review – Irish Brew


Director: James Marsh 

Writer: Tom Bradby (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen


Release date: August 24th, 2012

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Countries: UK, Ireland

Running time: 101 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: Enthralling performances from Riseborough and Owen.

Worst part: The monotonous pace.

Throughout history, Ireland’s lower and middle classes have been embroiled in violent social upheaval. Political thriller Shadow Dancer is based on a novel from the film’s screen-writer Tom Bradby. His Journalistic work for ITV news in 1990’s Northern Ireland was paramount to the success of this authentic and haunting story. The film balances between gritty realism and poetic storytelling, creating a harsh, subtle yet emotionally powerful account of one of the world’s most appalling political conflicts.

Andrea Riseborough.

The film depicts the Irish Republican Army(IRA)’s atrocities from the insider’s perspective. Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is a single mother and pawn in a political and familial struggle. Still reeling from her brother’s death decades earlier, her emotional restraints are broken when she fails to follow orders. Arrested after her role in a failed bomb plot on a London underground train, Colette is given a choice by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen). She can either aid the British police in capturing important IRA members or spend 25 years in prison. With her son and mother in mind, Colette reports IRA incidents to Mac. When an IRA assassination plot is foiled however, paranoia sets in and everyone becomes a target of republican revenge. Both Colette and Mac must soon face their own problems within separate organisations.

Riseborough & Clive Owen.

Riseborough & Clive Owen.

Shadow Dancer meditatively becomes a heart wrenching slow-burn thriller in the vein of this year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Following the film’s emotionally resonant first scene, the sombre tone of these horrific events establishes the core of this IRA thriller. This character study, documenting the separation between the law and anarchy, is defined by the similarities between Colette and Mac. Colette is morally driven and sensitive, determined to help the innocent people in her family by any means. From the nail-biting station sequence, her emotions illustrate the true despair of a broken home and divided country. The unique step this film takes is to develop Owen’s determined and sceptical detective character. Frustrated with his superiors, his paranoia pushes his illegitimate investigation of both Colette’s pressing situation and the practices of his own organisation. Riseborough and Owen are compelling in their chilling roles. Vastly different characters on the surface with similar shades of regret and redemption underneath, their disconcerting relationship brews intensely.

David Wilmot, Aiden Gillan & Domhnall Gleeson.

David Wilmot, Aiden Gillan & Domhnall Gleeson.

Capturing a nation’s identity through familial heartache and violence, Shadow Dancer creates a more contemplative view of crime than similar films such as 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Sharing many similarities with 2008 action-thriller Traitor, personalities and political conspiracies collide into a discomforting and powerfully relevant story. Director James Marsh (Man on WireProject Nim) smartly focuses on the emotional bonds created and then broken between people on both sides of the law. Unfortunately, the film provides a narrow focus on the IRA situation through Collette and Mac’s perspectives. Marsh seems intent on depicting one family’s influential role in the civil unrest; failing to convincingly develop this pressing social affliction. This choice sorely costs vital screen time for talented character actors including Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson and The Guard‘s David Wilmot as vital IRA members close to Colette. The handheld camera style creates a gritty and atmospheric presentation of certain events. The funeral scene stands out in this case, capturing a breathtaking account of the clash between authority and republican rights.

“Is it just because she has a pretty face?” (Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), Shadow Dancer).

Gillian Anderson.

Gillian Anderson.

Marsh has combined his experience with documentary film-making with the ever advancing possibilities of fictional storytelling. A gritty sense of darkness is born here, as each character must begin to accept the depths they have fallen into along the way. The film becomes a claustrophobic aura of death and emotional despair, despite lacking the political intrigue of IRA drama The Crying Game. Belfast specifically becomes a symbol of Colette’s shattered mind. Decrepit and sombre, Marsh focuses on locations which illustrate the societal impact of a republican force fighting oppression from a first world order. Each interrogation is an enthralling and climactic dialogue sequence. A smoke-like haze covers these scenes creating a significant sense of dread. Each interrogation illustrates Colette’s increasing danger, forcing her to continually look over her shoulder in a cold sweat. The film’s sombre tone is fuelled by a washed out colour scheme. Even in the film’s happiest moments, dark clouds gather over Colette as her paranoia begins to take over.

Breathing new life back int0 Ireland’s film industry, Shadow Dancer depicts a much-maligned sector of the country’s history. Thanks to its refined cast and efficient direction, this stoic crime-thriller picks us up and shakes around throughout its taut run-time. It may even get people invested in this ongoing conflict.

Verdict: An intense and heart-breaking political thriller. 

My Brothers Review – Stand By Me


Director: Paul Fraser

Writer: Will Collins

Stars: Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney, Tj Griffin, Don Wycherley


Release date: August 17th, 2012

Distributors: Olive Films, Cinemax

Country: Ireland

Running time: 90 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The sibling relationships.

Worst part: The underdeveloped supporting characters.

Very few films have powerfully focused on the positives and negatives to come out of the passing of a loved one. This solemn part of existence is illustrated in My Brothers with a delicacy rarely seen in modern drama. Paying homage to Stand by Me and Star Wars, this love letter to 70s/80s Hollywood comes from a profound place of love and imagination. Bolstered by three solemn yet ambitious lead characters, this road trip comedy reaches for the more meaningful aspects of existence.

Timmy Creed.

Timmy Creed.

With the imminent death of their ill father, three brothers react differently and affectingly to their current predicament. Noel (Timmy Creed) feels punishingly afflicted with sudden responsibility when faced with his family’s future. Paudie (Paul Courtney) avoids the situation through immature behaviour. While Scwally (T.J. Griffin) is a naive young boy connected to a cheap toy lightsaber, despite having never seen Star Wars. To redeem their once happy connection with their father, the three brothers travel to a seaside town to replace his broken watch. With an unbalanced array of personalities and sombre feelings towards their current situation, the experiences and recollections they encounter may positively change their unsteady relationship.

Creed, Paul Courtney & Tj Griffin.

Creed, Paul Courtney & Tj Griffin.

My Brothers is a touching, charming yet sombre examination of family, memory, death and redemption. Paul Fraser (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) has directed this solemn yet inspirational road trip film with a powerful emotional connection. The sombre tone, created through gorgeous cinematography capturing every raindrop and dirt road on their journey through rich, green hills, assuredly develops this story of the importance of both life and death. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, in which three different stories of people affected by death fail to develop a powerful emotional connection to its important themes, the three brothers aren’t simply aiming for a relief from their current predicament, but aim to effectively tie up loose ends with one powerful act. With the watch symbolising their family’s happiness and responsibility, its repair will ultimately bring the three of them together despite their imminent loss of family connection. The acoustic soundtrack and wildly differing personalities clashing throughout their journey effectively capture an authentic representation of youth in lower class Ireland.

“If daddy dies in the holidays, do we still get time off from school when we go back?” (Scwally (Tj Griffin), My Brothers).

The road trip.

The road trip.

With a window into family happiness at tail ends of the film contrasting their currently crumbling lives, the three brothers are developed as realistically flawed yet loveable characters. Much like the works of J.J. Abrams and Wes Anderson, they not only provide gripping and believable performances but feel like representations of the director’s childhood experience. Their clashing personalities and poignant issues powerfully affect their families’ structure, yet their ailments allow for genuine comedic moments. They become more believable with every van malfunction, expression of bodily function and revelation of inner thoughts and desires. The characters also symbolise a separation between imagination and reality. The transformational Stand By Me elements of their journey on the road to personal development and realisation, along with Scwally’s immense infatuation with an important item, define important issues created by youth when faced with unavoidable experiences and difficult yet vital decisions.

My Brothers, a current hit at film festivals around the world, is an emotionally gripping experience. The sympathetic characters and bittersweet narrative create a realistic representation of the dramatic shifts in any desperate family when faced with loss.

Verdict: An emotionally powerful journey of family connection.