(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Mark Ruffalo makes for an unlikely star, but you can’t deny his hangdog charm. He’s one of the two biggest reasons why Begin Again work, the other one being John Carney’s uncanny ability to make great musically dominated movies. I watched Begin Again largely because I was intrigued to see if Carney would match the effectiveness of Once and Sing Street. I shouldn’t have worried. Begin Again takes place in New York City and targets a disgraced record label executive (Ruffalo) as he discovers a new talent (Kiera Knightley, possibly miscast) that he nurtures to success. There are plenty of things here that could have gone wrong: it’s a very familiar story, after all, and under rougher hands it probably would have ended with a mismatched-age romance between the two. But Carney knows better, and after some initial romantic tension, the mentor/mentee relationship proves to be enough, especially when both of them gain from the experience. The centrepiece of the film, as with other Carney movies, is a sequence in which the characters come together for the sheer fun of making music, shooting a video on New York City rooftops and backstreets. While, overall, Begin Again doesn’t have the same punch as Carney’s earlier Once, it’s a lot more fun and colourful. And while Knightley isn’t much of a signer, she does have chemistry with Ruffalo, while Ruffalo himself has enough charm to power the rest of the movie by himself. While Begin Again may not age all that well, it does illustrate the music industry at the beginning of the 2010s, poised between the decade-old traditional system and the disruptive influence of the web. It’s still a worthwhile movie, and a nice link between Carney’s other movies.
(On DVD, June 2018) There is a lot that I shouldn’t like about Once. I’m usually allergic to the kind of low-tech handheld naturalistic aesthetics of the film; I’m not that fond of the kind of music that it played in the film from beginning to end, and I like my endings upbeat rather than melancholic. But Once is much more than the sum of its components, and the overall film does feel like a quiet triumph of film make subservient to music. I should not have been surprised—Writer/director John Carney also has Begin Again and Sing Street on his resume, and any of those would be a reputation-making film. It’s no surprise to see him capture more or less that same contagious sense of satisfaction at seen music portrayed so well on film. Two singers, Glen Hansard and the incredibly likable Markéta Irglová, play the lead roles with considerable talent—they’re not incredibly polished actors, but they certainly make an impact. The film reaches an apex of sort (also shared with other films in the Carney oeuvre) when everything comes together for a sustained high of pure music-making, jamming through the night and listening to the recording as the sun comes up. It’s kind of magical in its own way, reaching even grouchy viewers such as myself. The lead single track, “Falling Slowly”, deservedly won an Oscar. Much of the story is strictly routine—albeit finely observed and taking place in less-than-advantaged settings. The story leads to the ending most appropriate for it, which is not necessarily synonymous with complete happiness. So it goes; Once’s most joyous moments are elsewhere.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Is it still a sleeper if everyone who talks about a film says it’s a sleeper? I wasn’t planning on watching Sing Street, but the word on the web was nearly unanimous: It’s a great little movie! You’ll never expect it! Sleeper hit of the year! High praise, overwhelming hype, low expectations: Whatever you call it, Sing Street is, indeed, a really good film that’s flying under the radar of a lot of people. It doesn’t start promisingly, mind you: Set in Dublin during the recession of the 1980s, Sing Street begins as financial and marital difficulties force a couple to send their son to a cheaper school. Humiliation is soon added to our protagonist’s troubles, but he refuses to let himself down. With the intention of impressing a girl, he soon starts a band and ransacks the pop culture of the time for inspiration. From unpromising beginnings, Sing Street soon acquires a comfortable cruising speed as the band works well together and leads to bigger and bigger things. Remarkably enough, you can see the evolution of the fictional band as they discover and integrate various sounds in their style. The soundtrack is very good, both for the licensed songs (Motörhead! The Clash! Robin Scott!) and for the original ones. “Drive it Like You Stole it,” in particular, is as good as any pop song can be—and it underscores the film’s best sequence as well. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is very likable in the main role, with Lucy Boynton playing a multilayered love interest. Writer/director John Carney knows what he’s doing and delivers a conventional but well-executed film. I have a few quibbles abound the ending, which takes place on an oneiric escape level that’s not quite satisfying, but by that time Sing Street has left its positive impact: It’s a charming film, a decent spiritual successor to The Commitments, and the kind of small discovery that you recommend to friends for years to come.