Sing Street (2016)

Sing Street

The band Sing Street, recording their first song…

 

Over a month after La La Land fever has subsided and the dust has settled, it has allowed me to see a gem of a movie called Sing Street, which would have easily made my top five films of 2016 if I only saw it in time. As of this writing, it is streaming on Netflix.

The film is written and directed by John Carney, who made both 2014’s highly overshadowed Begin Again (with Keira Knightly, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam Levine) and the 2007 masterpiece Once (probably the best musical of the 21st century). Mr. Carney is becoming a name I will now have to always be on the look out for so I can see his movies earlier.

Set in Dublin during the 1980s, Sing Street tells the story of a teenager named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). His parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are at constant war with each other (his mom is having an affair with another man). His music is his only true escape.

Due to money issues, Conor is to switch schools to a new school, under the strict rule of Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). Despite not being able to afford the required black shoes, Conor must go shoeless instead of wear the one pair of brown shoes he owns (and don’t get Brother Baxter started on guys who wear makeup). It also does not help that he meets the local bully, Barry (Ian Kelly). All this changes when he meets the one girl across the street from the school named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Even though he is told by Darren (Ben Carolan) that she has no interest in any of the boys in the school, Conor goes and introduces himself. When he finds out she is trying to be a model, he immediately recruits her to be in his band. She agrees, and he must recruit members to be in a band.

What the movie is smart about is that the members of the band actually know about music and have talent, yet still have enough characteristics to tell the members apart. Darren becomes the manager. The first recruit is Eamon (Mark McKenna, who I think looks a whole lot like 1980s child star Corey Feldman), who can play almost any instrument given to him. Eventually, Eamon agrees to playing bass. Then there is Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) as the keyboardist because “he’ll be able to play something: he’s black”. The last two members are Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice), not including Raphina, who becomes the model for the Band’s music videos.

There are two key relationships that Conor has in this film, both of which are undoubtably palpable. The first is with Raphina. If todays teenagers were to see this film (and I would hope they would), they may be envious of the chemistry that Conor and Raphina have. Conor is brave enough to be himself around Raphina, and she brings her motto of life to Conor (and the band) of being “Happy Sad” (she lives in a girls home, and is seeing an older man). She tells Conor (who she likes to call “Cosmo”) to be Happy Sad because that’s what love is.

The other relationship is between Conor and his older brother Brendan (a marvelous Jack Reynor). He is a college drop out, still living at home. He is one of the better big brother characters in recent years. He takes Conor as a pupil as far as music goes (much like the Jack Black character in The School of Rock). He is confident that Raphina’s boyfriend won’t be a problem because, “no girl can every truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”.

As was the case in Begin Again and Once, the music of Sing Street is stellar, and had me buying the soundtrack the day after viewing. One thing that was not the case was the rating of the movie, which the MPAA actually got right this time. It is PG-13. There is no real sexual content (despite a superfluous awkward view seconds of a women about to use a vibrator), so the film is really rated for its language and some thematic material. Basically, I would say only teenagers and above.

Without giving too much away, all I will say of the ending is that it did end as I expected, but the way I wanted it to. Think how rare that is for a movie viewing experience. I know there may not be a chance of it happening, but I would be so psyched if a sequel would happen (or at least the actors kept the band going).

They need to always get this band back together.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Heat (1995)

Heat

Pacino and De Niro, having coffee

“There are no small parts, only small actors”.

This quote (from acting legend Konstantin Stanislavski, a name known to every actor alive) was always one of my favorites on the area of acting, and it is shown all over Michael Mann’s 1995 classic Heat.

Before we get to the two big names of the movie, consider the supporting characters who do just as equal work. Val Kilmer. Ashley Judd. Jon Voight (I even forgot he was in this film). Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from Forrest Gump). Tom Sizemore. Wes Studi. (A young) Natalie Portman. Ted (“Buffalo Bill”) Levine. Dennis Haysbert. Danny Trejo (!). William Fichtner (if you google him, you will know who he is). All of these actors have varying screen times in Heat, and are memorable in their own rights.

Perhaps it was the genius of the direction (and writing) of Michael Mann. Perhaps it was because they all did their own research into the parts (which must have helped, because, according to IMDB, in 2002, the US Marines were shown the scene of the big gun fight to show how to actually retreat in real life) . Or (my guess), because they were all in the presence of the big guns Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Anyone who loves movies such as I knows that actors don’t come much better than Pacino or De Niro. True, the two of them have not had much great success in the new millennium (Pacino was in Jack and Jill and De Niro in Dirty Grandpa, after all), but I am a loyal movie goer. I know these two have talent that other actors envy. Al Pacino is the only actor I know that you can still hear when the volume is muted. Robert De Niro (when not doing comedy), has a stare that pierces the soul.

In Heat, they play rivals on the crime and moral spectrum. Pacino is Vincent Hanna, a veteran cop who stumbles upon De Niro’s Neil McCauley, a veteran robber. McCauley and some of his henchmen (Kilmer, Sizemore, and Trejo) are near the end of their robbing days, but after one slip up, Hanna is on their trail (with help from characters played by Williamson and Studi).

Almost at the exact midpoint of the movie (give or take a few minutes), Hanna finally meets McCauley. After being pulled over, Hanna does not kill McCauley or even arrest him. He offers him to buy him a cup of coffee.

This, of course, leads to one of the most memorable scenes of the last few decades in film. At this point in time, Pacino and De Niro had never been seen on-screen (though they starred in The Godfather, Part Two, none of their scenes were together). Here we see two actors exchange in dialogue no more than ten minutes. We see each actor at the top of their game, and it is like watching a pay per view boxing match. I always find myself unsure who to root for. It is not a match up of Cop vs Robber, but Pacino vs De Niro.

 

Parents, the movie is rated R mainly for swearing and violence. There is one scene at the beginning where Hanna is with is wife Justine (Diane Venora) kissing in bed. It lasts about one minute, but there is no nudity. The violence and swearing are harsh, but nothing a High Schooler would not be able to handle.

 

The only thing that keeps Heat from a five-star rating is its pacing seems a bit fast to me. I did not have much time to catch up, and felt a bit confused by the story. Nevertheless, a few more viewings would probably push it to a five star. The movie is worth seeing alone just for the acting. In the dinner scene, there is an instant moment where we see both Pacino and De Niro giving each other a look of respect. I feel that is not the characters doing that, but the actors for each other.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Silence (2016)

silence

Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) trying to spread hope, as well as gain it.

Movies can be divided into two categories: ones you can watch over and over again, and the others that are best watched at least once. If I had to pick which categories to put Martin Scorsese’s newest classic, Silence, into, my first gut reaction would be the latter. It is brutal, gritty, and hard to watch much of the time. Yet it is also a movie that has so many moments that are open to interpretation that you would need to see it more than once.

The story seems simple, yet when it is a Marty Scorsese movie, it is always so much more than that. During the 1630s (and when was the last time you saw a movie made during that time?), two missionaries named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who had a great 2016 after working with Mel Gibson on Hacksaw Ridge) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) venture out to Japan to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). There are obviously great set pieces and beautiful imagery, but the situation that these two are in take any hope out of it. The authorities are cracking down hard on anyone proclaiming themselves to be christian. Even a hint of it in your life would mean your death, unless you were willing to step (“trample”) on the image of Christ.

The title of the movie holds many meanings. For one, it is about how Rodrigues and Garrpe seem to think how Silence is the only thing they have responding to their prayers. On the other  hand, it could also mean that the movie itself has (as far as I could tell) little musical score, if any at all. All we hear are wails of Christians dying, the waves of the sea, the drops of rain (and sometimes blood), panting from exhaustion, and so on.

The acting is extremely effective. It would be hard for you to watch this movie, and think that it is about Kylo Ren (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and “the Amazing” Spider-Man going to save Qui-Gon Jinn/Oskar Schindler/Bryan Mills (Taken)/any of the other roles we associate with Liam Neeson. Instead, you are thinking of how these two young priests are starting to realize, little by little, that they are going in way over their head.

Parents, it should come as no surprise that this movie is definitely not for kids. There is no sexuality (some rear end nudity of the Japanese), or really any swearing. It is mainly due to the violence, which is generally revolved around the torture that the citizens have to endure. High School and above only.

I admit the movie does tend to go on a little bit, but it still does not change my view that Silence is another movie to mention in Scorsese’s immaculate resume (I admit I have not seen all of his movies, but who can argue against titles like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas?) Silence also proves its title with the effect on the audience. No talking, no cellphones ringing, just the still audience absorbing the screen (there was a time when I had to move my hand to make sure it was getting circulation.)

It may have come out just at the end of 2016, but Silence is still clearly one of the year’s very best films.

 

Overall: Four and a half Stars **** 1/2

Fences (2016)

fences

Troy (Denzel Washington) gives one of his sons a good talking to…

There will be no “Oscars So White” at the Oscars this February.

After two years of no recognition for anyone in the black community who make movies, it was as if Denzel Washington just said “Ok, I will put a stop to that” and decided to direct Fences.

The movie is based on the play by the late August Wilson (who had worked on the screenplay before his death in 2005). After he won a Tony Award for his role, Washington brings his Troy Maxson to the big screen. Troy is a garbage man who works during the 1950s alongside his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Married to his wife Rose (Viola Davis, who also starred with Washington on stage), he has two sons, Lyons (Russel Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). Lyons is a struggling musician, who does seem to come by to ask his old man for ten dollars on every one of his dad’s pay days. Cory is finishing High School, hoping to play on a football scholarship, which Troy is against. There is also Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered a brain injury during the war.

All the acting is stellar. Once again Denzel Washington gives us more reason to believe why he is one of the most talented actors to grace the silver screen. This performance ranks up with some of the best work that he has ever done. As I was watching him, I realized you could take any thirty seconds out of his performance, and it would be able to be used for him when announcing him as a Best Actor nominee (which it is pretty much impossible for him not to be).

There are secrets that are exposed, things that are brought out into the light, and all of this is handled so well we forget who the actors are. We don’t sense “Oh look, Viola Davis is acting right now.” We sense that Rose is expressing herself and showing us pain that we hope no one else has to go through (though sadly some do). This may finally be the chance Davis gets at winning an Oscar, and it will be well deserved.

Parents, I am glad to say the movie is PG-13, and for the right reasons. There is swearing, but it is mainly for the thematic material in the film (there is no sexuality, but some suggestive talk). I would say mature middle schoolers and up.

One thing about Washington’s performance is that it is so great we forget he directed the film as well. There is certainly a sense that the movie feels almost like a play, but a movie at the same time. While the movie is not perfect (it drags a little at times, mainly at the end), it is certaintly one of the best movies of 2016.

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

manchester-by-the-sea

From Left to Right, Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are quite the acting combo in “Manchester by the Sea”

It was a very strange feeling to me.

After seeing Manchester by the Sea, I left the theater and did not know what to think. Did I like it? Was it one of the best movies of the year? I could not say. As I was leaving the parking lot, I felt like I was catching some sort of virus. The movie had begun its process of growing on me, and has ever since. To the previous two questions, I say yes without a single thought of hesitation.

The movie centers on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a plumber/repairman in Boston. He is told that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart disease that he was diagnosed with years earlier. He is to break the news to Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and discovers that Joe left Lee as his guardian.

The rest of the plot is not for me to reveal, only for you to discover. We learn Lee has had a past he regrets in the town of Manchester, and we get flashback scenes including those with Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, wonderful as always) and Patrick’s drug addict of a mom (Gretchen Mol).

Still, it is the performances by Affleck and Hedges that carry this movie to the next level. Each deserve Oscar consideration. Affleck (younger brother of Ben) is considered to be the front-runner for Best Actor this year, and it is clear why. His performance is not filled with grand speeches or over the top moments (well a few). It is a contained performance, one that we identify with, or at least try to. He seems like a person we would meet on the street but forget if we only were talking to him for five minutes or so.

Lucas Hedges gives one of the better breakthrough performances in recent memory as Patrick. I have seen teens like this in my life who act and feel and talk and express emotions this way. It is a transcendent performance.

Parents, the R rating is justified. There is a lot of swearing that any middle schooler or High Schooler would hear, but the content of the film is too much for anyone not older than seventeen (maybe a mature 15 or 16-year-old, maybe). There is also sexual content, as Patrick is trying to have sex with one of his girlfriends (he has two that don’t know about the other), and we see a teenage girl in lingerie.

Is Manchester by the Sea an easy film to sit through? Heavens, no. Yet at the same time, you can’t take your eyes off of it. Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who should get Oscar consideration for both writing and directing), the film does seem to go a little long, but it will stay with you for as long as it wants to. I doubt it is leaving my mind and soul any time soon, and I hope it doesn’t.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

the-tale-of-the-princess-kaguya

Princess Kaguya (Chloe Grace Moretz) is as free a spirit as they come…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is as pure a fairy tale as one ever put to film. I was up early in the morning when I was watching it, but it felt like I was a little boy, being told a simple, beautiful bed time story by the masters of Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, just to name a few).

The story is of a bamboo cutter (James Caan) who, while cutting, discovers a young child he immediately calls “Princess”. Along with his wife (Mary Steenburgen, who also does a stellar job narrating the story), they see her grow up right before her eyes in a blink of the eye. The Husband (no names are given to the parents) is determined to make her a Princess, and while the wife is set to follow her husbands wishes, she just wants her daughter to be happy.

She meets friends (who call her “Little Bamboo”), most importantly Sutemaru (Darren Criss), who knows she is destined for great things. One day, her parents take her to the palace, where she is indeed made a Princess.

We also meet Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu), brought it to teach the Princess how to act like a Princess ought to act (which is easier said than done). What we get is not a tale of palaces and fame and fortune, but of sad isolation and loneliness.

Five Princes approach to offer proposals for marriage, in a scene that will have you struck in awe of how it is handled (with a good number of laughs as well). The Princess (now having been called “Kaguya” does not seek anything more than happiness, which she learns is not always easy to obtain (shades of Citizen Kane come to mind).

It seems like the saying “Less is more” may be the best to describe the animation here. Basically all hand drawn almost like a coloring book, the film avoids all obvious uses of computer animation we would expect in today’s modern animated films. If you ever pause the film, you can spend five minutes just looking at the animation itself. One imagines how many pains in the wrist occurred to the animators.

Parents, they is one or two scenes of nudity, though it is non sexual. Toward the beginning, the mother realizes she is able to produce milk, and is able to breastfeed for the Princess (I assume it is normal for kids in Japan to see this as ok, but I am not sure). Without this scene, I feel the film is perfect for all ages.

There is a scene where Lady Sagami is showing the Princess how to observe scrolls. Sagami says to scroll slowly, while the princess unrolls the whole parchment from one end of the room to the other. In observing animated masterpieces such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it should be observed the way Lady Sagami mentioned: Slow, and with attention to every detail.

 

Although I would not blame you for wanting to see it all for its glory as the Princess would.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

 

 

Let the Right One In (2008)

let-the-right-one-in

Eli is far from the typical girl next store…

This movie has you from the get go. The first scene shows a snowfall, but it looks like the black screen is steadily falling apart. It is rather spellbinding, just like the rest of the film.

I have not seen a lot of vampire movies, but Let the Right One In (along with its remake Let Me In from 2010, which is almost as good) is surely one of the best ones. It shows vampires as beings who have a problem, but do not relish in the fact that they have it. It is not a superpower, but a sickness of epic proportions (as shown in the original Nosferatu, still the greatest of vampire movies).

The Swedish (yes it has subtitles, get over it) film tells the story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy growing up in the 1980s. His parents are separated (he spends most of the time with his mom) and is basically a loner. He is picked on constantly at school. One day, a new girl moves in next store, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Right off the bat, she says “We cannot be friends.” The chemistry between these two 12 year olds (though Eli is not really 12) is more realistic than most “chemistry” in movies based off of a Nicholas Sparks book. Sure, Eli is a vampire (the picture above may have given that away), but Oskar only sees a soul going through the same things he does. It is one heck of an authentic friendship.

My only qualm with the film is it spent a tad too much time with the adult characters. Really, the only one I felt we needed to see much of was Hakan (Per Ragnar), the father like figure of Eli, who “supplies” her with the blood she needs. The other adult characters are interesting enough, but much of their screen time had me wanting to go back to the relationship between Oskar and Eli.

Parents, I cannot think of any other film about 12 year olds that is not for 12 year olds. Obviously, the film does have violence and gore, and some swearing (an F bomb here or there). There is also a scene where Eli undresses and gets into Oskar’s bed with him. It is nothing really sexual. There is also a very brief (and I mean very brief) flash of nudity (it comes after Oskar tells Eli about his mom’s dresses), but again nothing sexual. Still, the R rating is justified, so only High School and up.

I have stated before that I am a sucker (pun intended, since it is a vampire movie) for puppy love, and there is no doubt this movie nails it. There are not many movies that can explain horror, romance, drama, and art, and Let the Right One In does so flawlessly.

I found myself wanting a friend like Eli when I was twelve. Someone I could talk to when no one listened (or I did not want to talk to my parents). Someone to give me advice. Someone to help me out of a jam with bullies.

You know, minus the whole blood sucking part.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2