Tag Archives: 2016

Moana ***½|****

Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho in Moana
Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho in Moana

Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements are known for some of Disney’s most magical and memorable musicals (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) and they’ve found success again with this exceedingly charming and gorgeous new computer-animated film. Moana is an example of the Disney “formula” working at its highest level, pairing original music that’s both clever and catchy with a story that is sophisticated enough to keep adults involved but also moves along at a pitch-perfect pace so as to not throw off any of the youngsters too. Also packed with loads of good natured humor, it’s a breezy and vibrant work sure to put a smile on the face of all who encounter it.

Set on the Polynesian island of Motunui, our heroine Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is next in line to be chosen as the chief of her village but it seems that the ocean has larger plans in store for her. After receiving an ancient stone that is said to be the heart of a goddess, she learns of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and seeks his help in returning the stone to its rightful owner. Moana and Maui’s adventures on the sea pit them against numerous adversaries like the coconut-shaped pirates called the Kakamora and an oversized crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), who looks like a bedazzled version of Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.

It’s no surprise that there’s an unmistakable Flight of the Conchords vibe to the crab’s slippery funk musical number “Shiny” and Dwayne Johnson gets some big laughs out of his equally conceited “You’re Welcome” but it’s not just the humorous songs that stand out. Rich and empowering group numbers like “Where You Are” and “We Know The Way” work as great character introductions and also move the plot along in a satisfying way. But it’s Moana’s signature tune “How Far I’ll Go” that will likely be competing for Best Original Song next Feburary and while it may not have the instant, chart-topping appeal of Frozen‘s “Let It Go”, it’s every bit as heartfelt and compelling.

Moana is Musker and Clements’ first CGI film and while the traditional hand-drawn animation of their previous work is no doubt admirable on its own terms, this is by leaps and bounds their best looking movie. The endless dazzling blue ocean, which not only serves as a beautiful backdrop for the action but also becomes a personified character in the story, is captured with the kind of lush precision that may not have been possible even 10 or 15 years ago. Other natural elements of fire and earth are invoked in similarly striking manner, especially in the climactic battle that pits our heroes against a molten monster who hurls fireballs that kindle the night’s sky.

What makes this film stand out most against its predecessors, though, is the progressive nature of its narrative, which eschews the tired Disney Princess cycle and instead portrays a female protagonist who isn’t searching for true love or a man to complete her life. This is a heroine who is smart, capable and clearly qualified enough to run her entire village, whose journey is one of self-discovery rather than societal obligation. It’s just one right step in a movie that takes many correct ones and after a year of one box office smash after another, Disney may have saved its best for last with the resounding achievement that is Moana.

Moonlight ****|****

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

Coming-of-age dramas are rarely as quietly perceptive and genuinely compassionate as the masterful new film Moonlight, which has garnered an overwhelming amount of acclaim since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September but it nonetheless justifies itself as one of the year’s defining achievements. Barry Jenkins previously directed the little-seen Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 and he reintroduces himself here as one of the most inspiring voices in American independent cinema working today. His handling of taboo subjects like race and sexuality among the seasons of a young man’s life represents a level of empathy and grace that should take hold of anyone who gives this film a chance.

Based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the story depicts three defining chapters in the life of our main character Chiron as he grows up in modern-day Miami. We are introduced to him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) when he is discovered in an abandoned motel after school one day by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who nicknames him “Little” due to both his diminutive stature and crippling bouts of shyness. Along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan does his best to take Little under his wing to make up for the emotional abuse he suffers under his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).

Time passes and we witness Chiron as a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) during a period of harassment by his school peers that causes him to confide in a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who shows Chiron the kindness that he’s been sorely neglected elsewhere in his life. When an unexpected act of violence sends Chiron to juvenile hall, he emerges years later as a hardened drug dealer played by Trevante Rhodes who now goes by the name “Black” (a nickname given to Chiron by Kevin in their teen years) and resides near Atlanta. Seeking to reconcile both with his mother and Kevin (now played by André Holland) after time lost to prison, he revisits his home town as a man who appears changed on the outside but still carries with him the formative memories of his past life.

The screenplay, also by Jenkins, is remarkable not only for its pitch-perfect dialogue but even more so for the palpable subtext that permeates all of the words left unsaid between the characters. All of the actors, particularly Rhodes and Holland, are so carefully understated in their roles that there’s a kind of quiet electricity behind every interaction that kept me locked into the intimacy and urgency of every single scene. There’s also an incredible amount of physical and emotional consistency among the three performances  for each iteration of Chiron, which would be a challenge for an actor to convey with any character but when it’s one as conflicted and guarded as the protagonist here, it makes the feat that much more admirable.

On the technical side of things, the elegiac score by Nicholas Britell and James Laxton’s luminous cinematography add yet another layer of beauty and artistic accomplishment to a movie that’s already brimming with both. My only criticism lies with bits of sound editing and mixing that render some of the dialogue either inaudible or inarticulate, an issue I also had with the similarly heart-wrenching indie Krisha earlier this year. Other than that minor issue, Moonlight remains a staggering and unmissable meditation on what it means to find yourself amidst a potentially unwelcoming world and to fight valiantly for your own share of love and happiness.

Arrival ***½|****

Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

The new heady sci-fi feature Arrival is the kind of film that’s difficult to completely take in after the first sitting and having a solidified critical reaction to it in such a short amount of time seems like a bit of a fool’s errand. Having seen it a few nights prior to this writing and also having a couple days for post-viewing reflection, I imagine a second go-round almost seems essential to properly evaluate it but it’s difficult to say which elements would be enhanced or be diminished from repeat viewings. What I can say is that this is one massively ambitious and confident piece of filmmaking that will inevitably divide audiences as they wrestle for specific forms of meaning within the story.

Amy Adams is profoundly affecting as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called in by the US government to attempt communication with aliens aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft that has mysteriously touched down in Montana. Joining her on the team is the cocky theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the critical Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with other members of the international scientific community who are simultaneously engaging the other eleven ships discovered in equally inexplicable locations across the globe. The remainder of the storyline revolves around Banks’ contact with the new visitors, as she attempts to learn why their ships are stationed at the seemingly random spots and why they have come to our planet in the first place.

I’m obviously playing coy with some of the larger reveals around the plot, as they’re much better for viewers to discover on their own, but suffice it to say that details from Banks’ personal life soon intermingle with her job of decoding these foreign alien messages. The method of communication that they use, a form of circular drawings that is not only brilliantly conceived but visually stunning in its complexity, seems to suggest that these lifeforms have a perception of time that exceeds the ability of humans. When this concept is applied to the narrative, it creates a sort of non-linear chronology that may seem confusing in the moment but seems to click right into place right before the film’s conclusion.

This is the fourth English language movie from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who is responsible for last year’s excellent drug thriller Sicario, and it’s incredibly fulfilling to once again see his unique brand of challenging storytelling fused with a mid-budget, widely-distributed vehicle like this. He’s making the kind of creative leaps and bold narrative choices that someone like Christopher Nolan would incorporate in their films (yes, Arrival does have notes of Inception at its core) but he’s doing it with a fraction of the funds. Seeing him succeed so valiantly in the science-fiction genre is a comforting sign for those who are hotly anticipating his Blade Runner sequel next October, especially given how many franchise-extending films have disappointed in the past.

I would be remiss to neglect the efforts of cinematographer Bradford Young, who also recently shot Selma and A Most Violent Year and is further proving himself to be one of the most visionary DPs working today. His camera is both pensive and personal in its scope; his ability to capture both moments of grandeur and intimacy with the same level of focus and beauty is nothing short of remarkable. At a time when most movies seem to track two steps behind the audience instead of two steps ahead, Arrival is a most welcome arrival indeed.

Doctor Strange **|****

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Marvel adds a new superhero to its ever expanding Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange, a visually arresting actioneer that’s frequently undermined by muddled mythology and a lethal lack of narrative cohesion. These films obviously cater most to the comic book fans who are already familiar with these characters and this world but for newcomers, whom I suspect will comprise the majority of the audience, the “anything goes” nature of this mystic arts setting should inevitably lead to some serious head scratching. Even the more fantastical superheroes like Thor and Hulk are still bound by tangible principles that tie them to the real world but as soon as Strange crosses over into different dimensions, it’s clear that it doesn’t want to play by any discernible set of rules.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular neurosurgeon, who is introduced as a haughty concoction of MCU favorite Tony Stark and TV’s Dr. House, though he doesn’t have half of the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. or Hugh Laurie. A near fatal car accident leaves him without the use of his hands, effectively ending his medical career and forcing him to scour the world for a solution. His journey leads him to Nepal and specifically the temple of Kamar-Taj, where Strange meets a wise mystic referred to as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and another master of magic named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Being a steadfast man of science over faith, Strange is initially resistant to their spiritual methods of healing but is quickly made a believer when the Ancient One opens his eyes to phenomenons like inter-dimensional travel and astral projection. He dedicates himself to the practice of mystic arts and progresses quickly, which allows him to square off against the fallen sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) as he plots to unleash a powerful evil from the Dark Dimension onto Earth. Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also turns up from time to time as a fellow surgeon who is asked to perform spontaneous operations on key protagonists.

You probably get the sense that this film is all over the map not only in the literal sense but also in terms of narrative and tonal ambition. Perhaps Strange warrants a more lengthy investigation through a miniseries like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage recently received on Netflix because two hours just doesn’t seem like nearly enough to cover this ground. I don’t envy the task of director Scott Derrickson to introduce us to a brand new superhero while also explaining the boundaries of a conceptually complex new setting but he does a poor job at doing either with any sense of personal flavor.

It doesn’t help that the attempts at humor almost unanimously fall flat (unless seemingly stoic characters jamming out to Beyoncé is up your alley) and more laughs instead stem from the unintentional side of things. There’s something overwhelmingly silly about the way Strange and a rival spirit duke it out in the astral plane while hospital objects in the real world move the slightest inch to suggest their otherworldly involvement. Doctor Strange is a bewildering mess of a Marvel movie, not without some admirable visual trickery but also not a worthwhile addition to the already packed stable of heavy hitters in the MCU.

My Top 10 Horror Movies of the Past 10 Years

10. Insidious: Chapter 2

Insidious: Chapter 2
By far the most underrated of the three Insidious films, this sequel delivers more scares than the original while also remaining a true companion piece to it with narrative reveals that compliment the predecessor perfectly.

9. Sinister

Few horror movies look pure darkness in the face as unflinchingly as Sinister, which uses a home video aesthetic to depict horrifying acts of violence that threaten to drive its protagonist (played by Ethan Hawke) over the edge.

8. It Follows

It Follows
David Robert Mitchell crafts a brilliantly simple conceit — what if an STD actually presented itself spontaneously in human form? — for this creepy thriller with loads of stylish throwback touches and a killer soundtrack by Disasterpeace.

7. The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil
Other entries on this list have clear influences from horror cinema of the ’70s and ’80s but with its slow burn narrative and faithful lo-fi palette, The House of the Devil truly feels like it comes from an entirely different era altogether.

6. You’re Next

You're Next
This subversive take on the home invasion sub-genre has plenty of clever plot twists to keep audiences on their toes and the kind of all-out gory spectacles that you might otherwise find in some of Wes Craven’s best work.

5. The Orphanage

The Orphanage
Borrowing from some of the visual cues that made executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth such a resounding success, Spanish director J. A. Bayona puts his unique spin on this ghost story about a mother’s journey to return to her son.

4. The Babadook

The Babadook
Drawing influence from both traditional gothic horror and classic silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this bone-chilling fable creates a terrifying new creature in its titular character that feeds off the grief of a struggling single mother (played flawlessly by Essie Davis).

3. Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy
Featuring the creepiest cinematic twins this side of The Shining, Goodnight Mommy is an Austrian import that takes a case of mistaken identity to disturbing and unnerving extremes that will stay with viewers long after the chilling final shot.

2. Black Swan

Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky incorporated bits of psychological terror around the edges of his drug opus Requiem for a Dream and he puts that dread at the forefront of this dark tale about violent obsession and the endless pursuit of perfection.

1. Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In
A Swedish vampire movie may not seem to be the most conventional pick for best horror films of the past 10 years but not only does it have more than enough frightening moments to qualify, it also has outstanding performances and a poignant love story that’s sure to draw in horror purists everywhere.

Ouija: Origin of Evil **½|****

Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil
Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil

This prequel to 2014’s critically reviled but financially prosperous Ouija shares the titular board game as the focal point of its premise but is markedly different in a few key areas that make it more promising from the outset. Instead of being set in present day, the action of Ouija: Origin of Evil takes place in the hazy, autumnal glow of 1967, a time that in retrospect feels much less cynical and inherently more superstitious than today. Rather than being subjected to a group of mindless teenagers who make one stupid decision after another, the story here centers around a mother and her two daughters who are capable and intelligent in ways that make them easy to root for and care about.

The mother Alice, played by Elizabeth Reaser, raises the daughters by herself after her husband’s life is cut short by a drunk driver and she’s able to make ends meet by hosting bogus séances in her home with the help of her oldest Lina (Annalise Basso) and her youngest Doris (Lulu Wilson). Eager to introduce a new prop into their routine, Alice picks up a Ouija board at the local store but disobeys the instruction to never conduct a reading while unaccompanied by others. Unbeknownst to her, the spirits that she’s conjured begin to work through Doris and possess her in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has seen any supernatural horror movie of the past 50 years.

With his previous efforts Oculus and this year’s Netflix release Hush, director Mike Flanagan is a solid match for this kind of material and while he gets off to a great start with convincing characters and an enticing setting, the genre clichés inevitably begin to pile up and stifle the bits of originality that exist elsewhere. It’s as if Universal knew that since this was the only horror movie to be released around Halloween this year, it had to cover as much ground as it possibly could to appeal to the widest audience. Flanagan picks from the best bits of genre titans like House on Haunted Hill, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist with varying degrees of success.

These odes to the past are also accentuated by flairs of nostalgic showmanship that permeate the film, whether it’s the throwback title card complete with the “MMXVI” copyright at the opening or the faux-changeover cues that blip intermittently in the corners. In fact, the lighting and the set design inside the house is so striking in its authenticity that these somewhat gimmicky touches may not have even been necessary in the first place. The inclusion of computer-generated effects into the mix also dampens some of the charm of the simple practical effects like the Ouija planchette springing to life on its own.

The performances are uniformly believable and most importantly, the actors don’t succumb to the campy elements that crop up later in the narrative. Best of the performers is the youngest actress Lulu Wilson, who brings the perfect level of creepiness to her possessed character and gives the film its most chilling moment with her monologue describing the sensation of being strangled to an increasingly distressed house guest. Ouija: Origin of Evil is perfectly serviceable for those looking for a grab bag of well-staged jolts but might be disappointing to hardcore horror fans seeking a future classic for their Halloween rotation.

The Accountant ***|****

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck in The Accountant
Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck in The Accountant

Ben Affleck is equal parts John Nash and John Wick in The Accountant, a new action thriller that’s much more exciting than its title may lead one to believe. Suspension of disbelief is crucial for enjoyment, not only in regards to the central casting (you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’ll buy Affleck as an autistic genius) but also as it pertains to the dubious plot elements that build on top of one another as the story progresses. There are bits of dark humor mixed in that suggest the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and I would say that’s good advice for any audience member to follow as well.

Affleck’s titular character is a methodical mastermind who masquerades as a small-town CPA using the alias Christian Wolff but makes his real living tracking down missing funds for international criminals and other powerful organizations. In order to evade heat from a probing, high-level Treasury officer (J.K. Simmons), he takes on a more legitimate assignment for the prosthetics company Living Robotics when their in-house accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) spots some financial inconsistencies. The two form an unlikely bond as they work to uncover the suspected embezzlement, throwing around accounting terms and math equations as an unorthodox manner of flirting with one another.

With an advanced background in military combat, courtesy of an army-trained father, the imposing Wolff turns out to be just as dangerous with a sniper rifle as he is with an Excel spreadsheet. This comes in handy when he and Cummings are marked as targets for an unnamed assassin (Jon Bernthal) after their snooping at Living Robotics proves to be more dangerous than they had anticipated. As the two make a run for it together, they uncover secrets from within the company and also from Wolff’s turbulent past that lead them to the inevitable culprit (and, in similar fashion, an inevitable shootout).

It’s clear that this film wants to have it both ways, with director Gavin O’Connor trying to evenly split time making both a free-for-all action melee and a heady adult drama. It’s not always the easiest hybrid to negotiate, as the visceral combat can prove overwhelming on its own and the storyline tends to get more convoluted when left unchecked for too long. If the mixture of brain and brawn exists on a sliding scale, The Accountant is at its best when it splits the difference and finds its rhythm somewhere close to the middle of these two genres.

Aside from these more broad categorizations, the movie is also layered with interesting details and idiosyncrasies that give it its own original spin on otherwise familiar material. Like variables in a complex math equation cherished so thoroughly by the lead character, small visual cues like a dent on a thermos or the brush strokes of a stolen painting lead to larger payoffs farther along in the story. It all adds up to a somewhat peculiar and highly entertaining piece of action fare; a brainy shoot-em-up that might make taxpayers think twice about double-crossing their CPAs come tax time next year.

The Girl on the Train **|****

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train

The would-be Hitchcockian thriller The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as the newly divorced Rachel, who copes with her loneliness by turning to alcohol and spending her days as a passenger on a train that passes by her old neighborhood. From the comfort of the cabin car, she’s able to keep tabs on her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), along with their newborn daughter Evie. Her subtle stalking takes a dark turn when she spots their next door neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) in the midst of an affair and decides to confront her about the alleged behavior.

The primary mystery then centers around the Megan’s subsequent disappearance but to keep audiences guessing until the final reveal, director Tate Taylor constructs his story in a way that cheaply exploits Rachel’s alcohol-induced blackouts as a narrative gimmick. The fuzzy flashbacks grow in definition not because our protagonist is actually remembering things more clearly but rather because Taylor arbitrarily chooses which extra shot or camera angle he can add to hypothetically boost the suspense. The details of a key event prove to be more tedious than titillating with each re-visit and I was eventually hoping an extra was strapped with a GoPro somewhere in the scene so that we could finally get one coherent shot and just be done with it.

Of course such a notion is far too frivolous and playful to be considered by any of these characters, who are seldom allowed to exist outside a narrow spectrum of misery and self-loathing. Everyone is painted with the same broad strokes of discontent in a manner that feels both needlessly glum and wholly manufactured to make the audience mistake their moodiness for maturity. Only a handful of character interactions register as authentically human, while the rest are ripped straight from the soap operas and potboilers that likely acted as inspiration for the bestselling novel from which the movie was adapted.

These fleeting moments of honesty are brought forth from a staunchly committed performance by Blunt, whose Rachel serves as one of the film’s sole access points for empathy and humanity. Her bruised heroine mirrors the struggles of Nicole Kidman’s character from the thriller Before I Go To Sleep but Rachel’s alcohol dependency adds another challenge from a physical acting perspective atop the emotional workload that’s already in place. As an unreliable narrator, she forces us to battle our sympathy for her situation with our allegiance towards a version of the story that’s both sensible and satisfying.

The casting elsewhere is first-rate and the lack of other standout performances is likely a symptom of the sub-par material rather than a deficit of talent from the actors. As the sullen sexpot Megan, Haley Bennett reminded me of a more blasé and less relatable Jennifer Lawrence and Rebecca Ferguson, a revelation in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, doesn’t have the chance to develop anything meaningful in her repressed role. With awkward direction from Tate Taylor and a screenplay that favors shallow reveals over believable drama, The Girl on the Train simply doesn’t have what it needs to stay on track.

The Magnificent Seven ***|****

Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven
Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven

This crowd-pleasing remake of the 1960 Western (itself an adaption of Akira Kuraosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai) brings a 21st century refresh to the star power and charisma that made the original such a success. The Magnificent Seven may not be an entirely necessary or reverent update but with such a timeless story at its core, it seems inevitable that this tale will be retold for years to come. Besides amping up the action level a considerable amount, director Antoine Fuqua also touches on themes of race and poverty in ways that make it more relevant to the current cultural climate.

Denzel Washington fills the Yul Brynner role as warrant officer Sam Chisolm, who is called upon by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to put a stop to the tyranny imposed by the villainous miner Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) on her small town of Rose Creek. To get the job done, Chisolm recruits six willing men with varying backgrounds, including the misfit gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) and legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke). After running a smaller group of enforcers out of Rose Creek, Chisolm and his band of outsiders help train the locals to defend their town against the impending return of Bogue’s looming army.

The stellar cast of the original, which also included screen legends Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, was one of its most notable attributes and the same can also be said of this newer iteration. Washington is the perfect fit for a towering, no-nonsense gunman and Pratt once again channels his likeable goofball energy into another winning role. Other standouts in the group include Byung-hun Lee as the knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks and Vincent D’Onofrio, chewing up the scenery as a hunter buried under layers of animal pelts who speaks with an oddly high voice that had me cracking up during most of his line readings.

One area in which The Magnificent Seven is markedly improved over its predecessor is in the staging of the action sequences, which supplants the inconsistent foley gunshot sounds and unconvincing wound-clutching for violence that feels believable without being gratuitous. One of the highlights of Fuqua’s last Washington collaboration The Equalizer was the climactic standoff in a hardware store and he employs the same kind of cat-and-mouse tactics with the showdowns here too. The pacing could still stand to be a bit less frenetic but his camera gives us enough room to breathe and a tactile sense of location within the confines of this modest town.

Traditional Westerns aren’t nearly as common now as they were in the ’50s and ’60s, as films like Hell or High Water and The Revenant have incorporated Western themes into more modern and experimental forms of storytelling. These twists on the genre can obviously lead to excellent results but there’s also something satisfying about seeing a no-frills, popcorn shoot-em-up like this, especially when the direction is so sure-handed. Depending on how The Magnificent Seven fares at the box office, it may lead to a slew of other Westerns like it for a younger generation to call their own.

Sing Street ***½|****

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street

Set in Dublin in the mid-1980s, Sing Street is a coming-of-age tale whose subject Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is abruptly forced to transfer to the state-run school Synge Street after his family falls on hard financial times. One day after classes, he strikes up a conversation with an aspiring young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and in an effort to impress her, Conor claims that his band is looking for someone to star in their next music video and that she would fit the bill perfectly. Of course, Conor isn’t actually in a band, so he hastily recruits some members for his new musical endeavor, including multi-instrumentalist and rabbit enthusiast Eamon (Mark McKenna).

With his previous movies Once and Begin Again, Irish writer-director John Carney has kept music at the heart of his work and proves once again that few people capture the spontaneous energy behind music creation on film better than he does. His characters use their instruments and voices to bare their souls but the way they tell their stories through their music also helps the narrative grow organically from their emotions. Songwriters understand that ebullient feeling of putting just the right chords and notes together to make the perfect song and Carney puts that joy on screen for each musical number.

Another emotional linchpin for me in this film was Conor’s endearing relationship with his older brother Brendan, played by Jack Reynor. A college dropout who has seemingly given up pursuing any personal goals of his own, Brendan sees the creative potential in Conor and acts as a sort of musical and spiritual mentor to his younger brother. Sporting an admirable LP collection and various bits of sage advice (“no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins” was my personal favorite), he makes it his mission to give Conor the kind of education that he could never get from his classes in school.

The late night listening sessions in Brendan’s room serve as a bit of a respite for the brothers, with the boisterous sounds of the record player masking the shouting matches between their acrimonious parents. Elsewhere, Conor faces cruelty from both bullying schoolmates and oppressive teachers that threatens to extinguish the creative spirit he has worked so hard to cultivate. Carney adds these bits of real life anguish and torment to temper the typically cheery musical scenes and remind us that even though these characters find joy in creating and performing, it’s often in response to the less-than-ideal conditions of their personal lives.

Of course, the quality of the music itself is key to appreciating this kind of film and the songs here are as catchy as the 80s  pop tracks that inspired them. The band’s first hit “The Riddle of the Model” has a stabby synth lead right out of an A-ha single and the group’s best song “Up” has an infectious chorus that reminded me of Men At Work’s peak material. It’ll be a shame if none of these get nominated for Best Original Song next year but even if they don’t, Sing Street will still stand as another charming and vibrant victory for John Carney.