Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)

What's it about? Dublin, 1985. After moving to a rough new school, sensitive teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) sets about forming a new band to impress a girl.

Is it any good? It's an enjoyable coming-of-age musical-drama, with fetching performances and a sweetly melancholic tone. Walsh-Peelo turns in an immensely appealing performance as the impressionable teenager struggling to come to terms with the bullies at his new school, his hormones and the break-up of his parents marriage (nice turns from Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy). This being a musical drama, his outlet is of course music. Inspired by the bands on Top of the Pops and encouraged by his slacker music-guru brother (Jack Reynor, stealing most of the scenes he is in), he sets about impressing the enigmatic Raphina (Lucy Boynton) by assembling a rag-tag team of musicians, to both hilarious and heart-warming effect. This set-up allows for a fabulous soundtrack of 80s classic, which are paid homage by several original songs, all pretty good numbers performed by the onscreen band of non-professional actors. Carney certainly (New)-Romanticises 1980s Dublin and it's a pity the various band members don't get more screen time, but it'll strike a chord with anyone who's ever imagined themselves as a pop-star and had a dodgy haircut or make-up (or both) as a result.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Rave reviews on the festival circuit and amongst audiences who declare it charming, funny, warm, joyous and so on. All of which kinda surprised John Carney, since it contains darker, downbeat, bitter elements which offset the sweet. If only there were a word to describe that; sweet-bitter, perhaps? I'm more in Carney's camp here - I found the ending in particular quite ambiguous and not quite as up-lifting as others have done. 

Anything else I should know? John Carney can probably expect another Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, as he achieved with his previous films Begin Again and Once (which went on to win). It's the calibre of the original songs in Sing Street that set the film apart from thematically similar stuff like The Commitments and School of Rock, who of course performed only cover versions. Carney admits the film is a semi-autobiographical memoir (he attended the Synge Street school featured in the film and was an early member of The Frames), although he has deliberately included a fantastical wish-fulfilment element to soften the reality of the times - not least in the central Back to the Future-inspired sequence, which also gives us the opportunity to admire Aiden Gillen's dancing. Also Cyril McDuff.

What does the Fonz think? The Commitments of Rock.

Kids Corner #5 - The Black Cauldron

What is the Kid's Corner? An occasional series wherein I select fondly remembered films from my childhood and make my kids watch them so they too can fondly remember them in the future. This will increase family bonding, build character and will hopefully not end in a screaming row, like the den-building incident. So when the notion takes me, they will be dragged away from their friends and games and homework and will sit obediently by my side and/or look pityingly upon me as I wallow in nostalgia. This week....

I remember enjoying The Black Cauldron (Rich & Berman, 1985) at the cinema on its release and I was so entranced I even remember cryng a bit during one sad bit. Some time after I discovered that it was based on the second book in The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander's excellent fantasy series for younger readers, based on old Welsh mythology. So I read these, only to find that the film had done little justice to the story of Taran the lowly pig-herder and his quest to save his land from the forces of evil. So I started to question the quality of the film. All these years later, was I right to doubt it?

Well, yes. It's not that it's terrible, just terribly muddled. but that is no great surprise given its troubled production history. Stalled attempts to make it during the 70s had so frustrated chief Disney animator Don Bluth that he left with his team to set up his own studio. In the early 80s, it was hoped that new-fangled computer technology would make it the 'new Snow White', but the ambition of the project proved too much for the young animation team left behind. By 1984 new Disney bosses Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner were ringing the changes and the animation department, now splintered into several disjointed groups, was in danger of being axed entirely. So a lot was riding on the success of The Black Cauldron, which was now the most expensive animated film ever made, with a budget of anywhere between $25m and $40m, depending on your sources. But perhaps the new film, the first Disney film to be rated PG in an attempt to appeal to an older audience of kids, would cash in on the popular dungeons and dragons phenomenon?

Well, no. The first test screenings were a disaster. The lack of teamwork in the animation department was clearly evident in the variable animation onscreen and the deliberately darker tone proved too much for younger viewers, who were left in tears. Allegedly, Katzenberg was so apoplectic that he himself marched down to the editing room and started to cut scenes from the film before a frantic compromise was reached. In the end about 12 minutes were chopped, making an already choppy film even, well, choppier. The resulting film flopped at the box-office, limping home with less than half its budget recouped. Only the influence of Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) kept the animation department in place, a decision which would eventually return the studio to the glory days in the early 90s with the likes of Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin. But it was a close run thing. For a while The Black Cauldron was the film that almost killed Disney animation for good. 

Viewed over 30 years later, the problems seem not so much the animation, which is actually quite impressive in parts, not least in the 'Cauldron-born' sequence - the heavily cut bit that freaked out those young kids. It's the storytelling, which develops both plot and characters poorly and with none of the charm we would expect from Disney. There's little logic to the repetitive chase-capture-escape action, the villain is a poor man's Skeletor and the magical pig which kicks off the story is all but forgotten about halfway through. Little wonder Eisner demanded that script-to-storyboard would now be the method employed by the animators in future, rather than the decades-long tradition of doing it the other way round. So that was that. But wait! The source material still holds promise and still belongs to Disney. And with the sword-and-sorcery fantasy bandwagon showing no signs of slowing down, recent reports are that Disney are planning a live-action adaptation of the Prydain chronicles. For all its faults, The Black Cauldron may yet get a second lease of life as people seek it out for curiosity while they are munchings and crunchings on their popcorn.

The Kids are All Right?
No.1 (10yo): "It was good, except for the stupid bits"
No.2 (7yo): "Meh....I'm watching Wipeout instead"
No.3 (3yo): Left after 1 minute, dragging Peppa Pig toy. Unavailable for comment.

A full list of films in Kids Corner can be found here.

Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood, 2016)

What's it about? A planned capture mission on a military target in Nairobi is complicated when a innocent young girl sets up her bread stall within the strike-zone. Her safety depends on the decision of many watchers, courtesy of high-tech surveillance footage. In London, a lieutenant general (Alan Rickman) urges action, but needs the approval of dithering politicians, who are concerned about the legal and political fallout. At command centre, the colonel in charge of the operation (Helen Mirren) is determined to get her target, but is all too acutely aware of the need to operate within the law and to the chain of command. In Nevada, a US drone pilot (Aaron Paul) is the man who must actually pull the trigger, which weighs heavily on his conscience. Finally, in Nairobi, an agent-in-the-field (Barkhad Abdi) may be in a position to persuade the girl to move to safety.

Is it any good? A solid thriller which generates and sustains tension to good effect, even though most of the action is simply people communicating between the different locations by phone, video and computer.  As it moves assuredly between the four main locations, the effect of the 'real-time' scenario and frequent use of the surveillance video-feed is that the viewer becomes rather complicit in the action, raising the inevitable question - what would you do? In truth, the characters are little more than mouthpieces for the various for-and-against arguments for the strike, but the moral and ethical issues raised by the differing viewpoints are thought-provoking enough in themselves to forgive the lack of character depth.  And in true Hitchcockian fashion, Hood knows that the threat of the strike is more suspenseful than the actual event - the number of loaves on the little girl's makeshift stall is a wonderfully visual countdown device as tension builds. It's not perfect - there are a few clumsily handled moments (the stuff with the doll and food poisoning) - but this is still a timely film about the nature of modern warfare and the grey areas in which those involved must operate.

Anything else I should know? Sadly, this was the last on-screen performance from Alan Rickman, who died just a few weeks after the film was released. Rather fitting that such a intelligent actor gets to sign off with a challenging film which affords him the chance to deliver a great last line.

What does the Fonz think? I spy with my little eye, something beginning with G.....
Good film.

Buy it on Amazon

Vote for Me and Save the NHS!

First, the good news. The nice people at Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards., now in their fifth year of celebrating the best of Irish blogging, have only gone and short-listed The Fast Picture Show in their Film and TV category for the 2016 awards! Short! as in opposite of Long! 

Now the bad news. It seems the next step involves some sort of public vote, which means lowering myself to the sort of shameless vote-grabbing that one usually sees in mindless guff like Big Brother, The X-Factor and the US Presidential Election.  Worse, it means the public may actually read this. That's not something I would wish on anyone.

Anyhow, I've taken some advice on this and so if you vote for me by clicking HERE, I pledge to donate £350million to the NHS. Scout's honour.

(sad beep)

Courtesy The New Yorker