REVIEW: “Sing Street”

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Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” wasn’t the only delightful, endearing musical of 2016. John Carney’s “Sing Street” also celebrates the wonder of music but not in the star-studded dreamland of Los Angeles. Instead Carney plants us in inner-city Dublin circa 1985. There isn’t an ounce of glitz or pageantry in “Sing Street” yet its music, just like in “La La Land”, is packed with spirit and meaning.

Following the blueprint of his 2007 film “Once”, Carney cast musicians ahead of actors for “Sing Street”. The premise is as simple as they come – a boy forms a rock band to impress a girl. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. But the film comes alive as Carney fills in the gaps around that simple premise. His characters brim with personality. And of course there is the music.

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Leading Carney’s group of acting unknowns is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who plays Conor, the youngest of three siblings. His family’s financial woes lead his parents (nicely played by Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) to make the decision to remove Conor from his expensive private school to a free but significantly rowdier state school. As the new kid, Connor quickly finds himself the outsider among the school’s many ruffians. Constant run-ins with the class bully and the abusive principal only make things worse.

At home things aren’t much better. His parents’ marriage is falling apart and their disconnect effects the entire family. Conor’s sister Ann (Kelly Thorton) is an aspiring architect drowning in melancholy. Jack Reynor is a scene-stealer playing Conor’s older brother Brendan, a disillusioned college dropout who spends the bulk of his time listening to his records and waxing eloquently on the virtues of rock-and-roll. You could say he is Conor’s music and life professor.

Life brightens up a bit when Conor meets and instantly falls for Raphina (Lucy Boynton with a surprisingly layered performance). She’s an aspiring model who Conor convinces to star in his band’s  music video. But there’s one problem – he doesn’t have a band. So he puts together a misfit group of musicians and calls their band Sing Street. As they begin to create music it not only draws him closer to Raphina but it offers him a form of expression and an escape from the cruddy life surrounding him.

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“Sing Street” is Carney’s semi-autobiographical reflection on his teen years in Dublin. He pulls a lot from personal experience which is a key reason the story and the characters feel so authentic. I would also challenge anyone who grew up on 80s music to watch this and not be giddy with excitement. There is so much eye-lined, hair-sprayed, acid-washed nostalgia. Duran Duran, A-Ha, Hall and Oates, Joe Jackson – just some of the artists we get to hear. And wait till you see Conor’s fashion choices which change with each new band he discovers.

I’m still wrestling with its ending, but for the most part “Sing Street” hits all the right notes (horrible music pun absolutely intended). Carney juggles well timed humor with deep-seated realism and surrounds both with a head-bobbing collection of classic tunes and original songs. There are good performances throughout, particularly from Boynton and Reynor, but the real surprises may be Carney’s collection of acting unknowns who make up the band. Their camaraderie is infectious and watching them create music and find fulfillment gets to the true heart of “Sing Street”. And what a big heart it is.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Split”

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It’s probably a bit of an understatement to call M. Night Shyamalan’s career one big roller coaster ride. I’m actually far more fascinating by the mass reactions from moviegoers who treat him like a true auteur who has fallen from cinematic grace. I think that’s giving Shyamalan a tad too much credit. “The Sixth Sense” is really good. “Unbreakable” is superb. I’m a big fan of “Signs”. These are three solid movies with a certain cultural standing, but they are hardly great enough to make his subsequent decline so fiercely noteworthy.

Still there is no denying that the quality of Shyamalan’s movies fell like a ton of bricks. And I will freely admit that getting the taste of “Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” out of your mouth is next to impossible. For many people hope returned with 2015’s “The Visit”, a movie I had a lot of fun with. But for those unwilling to entertain the idea that Shyamalan’s career was back on the upswing, let’s just say “Split”  just might change your mind.

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For the most part the trailer sets up the entire premise. Three teenaged girls are kidnapped while leaving a birthday party. There abductor is Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. We learn through his sessions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) that Kevin possesses 23 unique personalities. Collectively they refer to themselves as The Horde.

While held captive the three girls encounter several of Kevin’s identities including the creepy  “Dennis” and the creepier “Patricia”. But they also meet gentler personalities from within Kevin’s mind, a sign of the intense internal conflict going on inside of him. McAvoy dives into his role head-first and shows off how crafty he can be when let off his leash. He is one of the film’s biggest strengths and it’s mind-boggling watching him bring out personality in each of the identities. It may be through accents, mannerisms, or even the slightest facial expression. Incredibly he makes each of them easily recognizable without any blatantly obvious markers.

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Of the three girls, Casey proves to be the more resilient. She’s cool-headed and observant – qualities learned from her deeply troubled past which Shyamalan feeds to us through a smattering of flashbacks. Casey is wonderfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy who gave an equally strong performance in last year’s “The Witch”. Performance-wise her fellow captives don’t fair as well. In their defense Shyamalan hands them some of the movie’s worst dialogue before leaving them locked up and in their underwear for the entire second half of the movie. Aren’t we tired of that yet?

Shyamalan leans heavily on scenes between Dr. Fletcher and one of Kevin’s more amiable personalities “Barry”. There is a psychological cat-and-mouse element to their sessions which is compelling. Shyamalan may lean on them a tad too much, but that’s not to say the scenes are without meaning. Also they allow for some of McAvoy’s best work. Through these scenes (and for that matter the entire film) Shyamalan maintains his sharp instincts for suspense and his skills with the camera are as good as ever.

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Then you have the finale. You’ll find no spoilers here and do yourself a favor – avoid them at all costs. Shyamalan has an impressive knack for causing you to immediately reevaluate his film after seeing its ending. It has never been more true than with “Split”. Shyamalan twists are a signature of his movies but prior to “The Visit” you could say he had become a parody of himself. “Split” proves he can still completely broadside any audience.

Shyamalan once again shows he is still a filmmaker worth paying attention to. “Split” is a movie with a few problems, some of which were easily avoidable. At the same time James McAvoy gives a stand-out performance and Anya Taylor-Joy continues to show she is the real deal. But most importantly Shyamalan sticks his ending with an insanely clever twist I never saw coming and that immediately compelled me to see the film again. Rarely has a conclusion surprised or impressed me quite like this. See it for yourself.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Silence”

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For Martin Scorsese bringing “Silence” to the screen has been a fascinating journey. It started as an inspiration in 1989. Over the next 25 years it grew and evolved into something deeply personal for the filmmaker. In several interviews Scorsese has intimated that the film’s conceptual evolution mirrored his very own spiritual maturation. This intimate connection seeps from every pore of “Silence” making it a profoundly affecting labor of love.

It was in 1989 that Scorsese first read “Silence”, Shūsaku Endō’s historical fiction novel published in 1966. Scorsese immediately knew he wanted to make a film adaptation but he didn’t know how. Early attempts lead to an unfinished script in 1991. Plans to begin production in 1997 were postponed. More delays came in 2004 and 2011. But these postponements weren’t without purpose. During that time Scorsese gained a better sense of what “Silence” was saying. In his words he finally figured out “the heart of the book”.

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Endō’s novel is a deep exploration of the depths of faith. It drills below the surface-level perceptions of faith, down to its most bare and intimate state. Scorsese’s cinematic study of this central spiritual theme is absorbing but also challenging. The story he and co-writer Jay Cocks tells is powerful and rooted in historical significance. At the same time the film is a bruising meditation that is calling its audience to self-reflection.

To get us to that point we follow two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (James Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). The two receive word that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has vanished after renouncing his faith amid intense persecution in the mission fields of Japan. Unconvinced of Ferreira’s apostasy, the two priests set out to find their mentor’s whereabouts despite the cloud of danger awaiting them.

The Japan of the 17th century was controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Christianity was deemed a threat and subsequently outlawed. Anyone breaking these laws faced torture and/or execution. It’s here that Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe sneak ashore with the aid of a boozing local vagrant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). There the “padres” connect with a small village of Christians who secretly practice their faith in the dark of night.

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It’s worth noting Scorsese’s use of his camera to portray the arduous, uncompromising world these two priests enter into. It feels just as foreign to us as it does them. Even the sound design contributes to the sense of uncertainty and isolation. The heightened sounds of nature routinely take the place of a your standard musical score and sometimes the silence itself speaks volumes.

Rodrigues and Garupe establish a semblance of ministerial and sacramental normalcy for the village believers and as a result see their own faith strengthened. But the region’s ruling shogunate led by the freakishly blithe and casually brutal Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) is intent on rooting out and purging the land of Christianity. His dogged persistence paves the way to the film’s central conflict – something much deeper than a faithful Christian versus his relentless persecutor.

The further you get into “Silence” the better you understand the challenge Scorsese lays before us. The obvious storyline is compelling, but to truly understand the heart of the story requires a willingness to internalize the theme of faith and reckon with what is revealed to you. Yes, it’s a deeply spiritual film but not a preachy one. In fact it could be said it asks more questions than it answers. Still Scorsese ponders these ideas with the sincerest curiosity and unflinching patience – the essence of faith, the pain of betrayal, our human frailty. And what do we make of God’s silence in the midst of tremendous suffering?

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As you would expect the performances are sublime. Neeson’s portrait of anguish and conflict helps make his handful of scenes some of the film’s finest. Driver is as tense as he is gaunt which is strikingly in-tune with his type of character. That gets to Garfield, a guy who has steadily gotten better with each role he has taken. In “Silence” he literally transforms before our eyes both in character and performance. He plays it a bit safe early on but quickly tosses aside all restraints and commits every ounce of himself. Portraying spiritual struggle is tough and Garfield impressively carries the bulk of that load.

It has taken me two viewings and a lot of wrestling to truly figure out how I feel about this film and what it means to me. It’s that type of movie – one that can’t be appreciated with a mere surface reading. Despite its incredible artistry and beautifully sculpted scenes (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserves an Oscar nomination), “Silence” seeks to be something more – a spiritual epic that not only reflects where Scorsese is in his personal journey but challenges us in ours.

“Silence” is a film that may not sit well with Scorsese die-hards looking for his normal cinematic swagger and it certainly doesn’t aim to be a 2 hour and 40 minute crowd-pleaser. But after a second look it clicked for me in every meaningful way. I still have questions the movie stirred up within me and I love the its unwillingness to give me every answer. In fact Scorsese isn’t saying he has every answer. But he is saying the questions are worth asking, and the answers you get just might change your life.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5STAR K&M

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REVIEW: “Southside with You”

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There are a handful of moments in “Southside with You” where I saw glimpses of a different movie – a better movie hidden just under the surface. They are brief moments where we get small tastes of character depth, moments where the actors feel more natural and less scripted, moments where the film hints at developing its own unique identity. Unfortunately these are only ‘moments’ and they tease us with what this film could have been.

First time director Richard Tanne’s starry-eyed treatment of President Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is a strange bit of bio-fiction but full of meaty potential. Tanne, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the familiar true framework of their first date and fills it in with inventions of his own. The problem is a big chunk of his fiction does more to hurt the film than to help.

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The movie begins on a warm summer Chicago day in 1989. Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is a Princeton grad and now lawyer at Chicago’s Sidley Austin law firm. She is assigned to mentor a Harvard man and summer associate named, you guessed it, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Michelle is portrayed as ambitious and focused. Barack is more laid back and charismatic. Michelle is adamant about keeping their relationship professional but agrees to go out on a ‘not-a-date’ outing with the future leader of the free world.

Barack picks Michelle up in his beat-up yellow Datsun and the two spend the day in Chicago. They hit a museum for an art exhibit. They take a stroll and have lunch in a park. They attend a community event where Barack served as organizer before heading to Harvard. They hit a bar, watch a movie, and end it with ice cream and a kiss. I mention all of that because it doesn’t really spoil anything. Tanne wants this to be about what they say instead of where they go. He tries to emphasize the conversations and pulls heavily from Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. Perhaps a bit too much.

The walk-and-talk formula works so well for Linklater because the conversations feel incredibly organic. Several things factor into that. First he has more seasoned actors. But the big difference is Hawke and Delpy contribute to those scripts. Their input helps make those exchanges their own. Many of Tanne’s conversations feels heavily scripted. Despite the best efforts of Sumpter and Sawyers, their dialogue is often dry and stilted. The actors are better than the material and there are moments where you see them rising above it and falling more comfortably into their characters. Sadly, the film doesn’t allow them to do it consistently.

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Back to Tanne’s inventions, one instance where it works is in the fictitious bar scene. Tanne slows things down and loosens his grip on his actors. It allows for the most open and authentic scene in the entire film. I loved it. But then we get moments such as the community event which probably happened some time later in their relationship but here is used as a pretty significant and obvious plot device. There is also an encounter outside of the movie theater that actually happened but Tanne significantly alters. The result is a noticeably clumsy and contrived scene that simply doesn’t work.

Sadly too many things don’t work. Perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong. Maybe it should only be viewed as a lightweight romantic date movie, but I’m not convinced it works through that lens either. I tried to imagine if the story or romance would hold an ounce of interest if the two involved weren’t the future president and first lady of the United States. Without their connection the answer was a resounding “No”. And even with their connection the movie doesn’t fare much better.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “Spy”

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I’m curious as to whether there is any middle ground with Melissa McCarthy. She’s a comic with a very in-your-face brand who does variations of the same shtick in practically every film she makes. Now if you enjoy that you’re likely to appreciate every one of her films to varying degrees. If you don’t then you’re going to struggle with every movie she makes.

Her action/comedy “Spy” is no different. It is full-blown McCarthy bouncing back and forth between self-deprecating, ‘fish out of water’ humor to loud, obnoxious, profanity-riddled “comedy”. Fans are sure to find it entertaining. I don’t fit that description which explains why I found it tedious, juvenile, and at times unbearable.

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McCarthy plays her usual character – a sympathetic oddball eccentric. This time she plays a CIA Operator named Susan Cooper whose job is to sit behind a desk and relay information to debonaire field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Susan aspires to be a field agent herself but lacks self-confidence. Plus she likes working with Bradley mainly due to a small but obvious crush. But he (like nearly everyone else in the film) doesn’t take her seriously which does nothing to boost her spirit.

Bradley is sent on a mission to retrieve a suitcase nuke from terrorists but things go terribly wrong. Susan is allowed in the field by her mean-spirited and reluctant boss Elaine (Allison Janney). Her job is strictly to observe, but a series of mishaps thrusts the desk-bound operator deeper into the wacky, violent spy world.

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Director Paul Feig had a hit in 2011 with “Bridesmaids” but followed it with the appallingly bad “The Heat”. And this year he is credited with directing the terribly bland “Ghostbusters” reboot. “Spy” doesn’t do anything to even out his track record. There is little new here. We get the standard McCarthy weight and appearance gags. We get a vomit gag. We get body part gags. And so on and so on.

The movie does introduce a number of quirky side characters most notably Jason Statham as a belligerent and oafish field agent and Rose Byrne as the evil villainess. Both fall into their parts well. Unfortunately both characters are undercut by Feig’s puerile writing. His insistence on forcing profanity in their every sentence makes them sound ridiculous. Perhaps the one reasonably authentic character is found in Susan’s loyal friend Nancy (Miranda Hart).

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The story itself tries to be a globe-trotting spy spoof but its antics get tiring. It attempts to change things up midway through by giving McCarthy’s character a profound transformation. The problem is it doesn’t feel genuine or earned. Even worse I found it made Susan shallower and far more annoying.

Yes I know people loved “Spy”. I know it made a ton of money at the box office. I know it was critically praised and sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. So be it. I simply don’t see the attraction. It is another in a long line of modern comedies that cling to the same methods. Much like McCarthy, if you like that type of humor you’ll probably like “Spy”. If you want something fresh, intelligent, and outside of the modern norm good luck finding it here.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars

REVIEW: “Suicide Squad”

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Poor, poor DC Entertainment. Since Christopher Nolan’s departure from their cinematic playground DC has had a rough go of it. 2013’s “Man of Steel” faced more than its share of scrutiny. This year’s “Batman vs Superman” was the fashionable punching bag for both critics and many viewers alike even prior to its release. Now we have “Suicide Squad”, a DC attempt at being subversive and unique while also bowing to the overblown criticisms regarding the serious tones employed by the first two films.

Here’s the problem, critics have greeted “Suicide Squad” with the harshest reception yet (and that’s saying something). To give you a taste, “trash”, “toxic”, “unpleasant”, “disastrous”, “sadistic”, and “putrid” are just a handful of the colorful terms used by critics to describe David Ayer’s supervillain antihero ensemble piece.

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I would love to dismiss all of the negativity as smug nonsense or as some form of bias against the DCEU. Unfortunately the film itself doesn’t allow me to do that. “Suicide Squad” may not deserve to be called “putrid” or “toxic”, but it should be called out for its host of faults, annoyances, and its flat-out shoddy execution in nearly every department.

I’m a generally positive guy and I tend to give a movie more credit for its fun factor and unique vision. I’m not sure you could call “Suicide Squad” a fun movie. It certainly wants to be colorful, funny, and cool. At times it seems like Ayers has convinced himself his film is all of those things. But a bright, fluorescent title screen is about as colorful as it gets, and you can count the mildly amusing moments on one hand. Also someone should tell Ayers that it takes more than a crazy amount of classic rock, a smattering of tattoos, and Will Smith’s attitude to be considered “cool”.

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As for a unique vision, nope. Aside from its ‘bad guys doing good’ angle (something that isn’t completely original itself), “Suicide Squad” doesn’t offer a single unique idea. The story is so poorly constructed and presented through such base level storytelling. Devious government operative Amanda Waller (played with stone-faced disinterest by Viola Davis) wants to create a covert strike team made up of metahuman criminals. There just happens to be a bunch at a high-security prison installation. A weird, out-of-the-blue threat arrives. It’s time for her team of misfits to get to work. It’s as simple as that.

To be fair, Ayers does try to add a hint of depth to the team. His bigger stars get their own weird backstory snapshot at the beginning of the film. Will Smith plays Deadshot, a lethal assassin who hits everything he shoots at. Margot Robbie play’s Harley Quinn, an ex-psychiatrist who has a freakishly dysfunctional relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker (more on him in a second). Everyone else gets their own flashback shoehorned in at random junctures, but they’re more or less disposable. Killer Croc, Katana, Boomerang, whatever.

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And then there is Joker, the character most people were talking about prior to release. The marketing would have you believe he is a significant player in the story but that’s not the case. He simply pops up in a few scenes mostly connected to Harley and then in a couple that feel completely disconnected. As for the Joker himself, I do give Leto credit for trying to put a unique spin on the character. But I have to say I hate the grillz, the tattoos, and the jewelry. He reminded me of James Franco from “Springbreakers”. Beyond that Leto isn’t given much space to present his version. We do get small glimpses of DC’s greatest villain, but not enough. This simply isn’t a Joker I care about watching.

While there are a few energetic moments and a fun performance from Robbie, “Suicide Squad” mostly maintains a generic look and feel throughout. A bland story, uninteresting chemistries, a boring and ridiculously lame central threat. But what stands out the most is how poorly this film is made. Bad pacing, horribly chopped-up story structure, and dull forgettable action. Every hint of what the film could have been is buried under a ton of poor execution. It clearly does a lot of box-checking for its studio, but in doing so it forgets to do the most important thing – make a good movie.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars