Film #263: Sing Street (2016)

singstreetdirector: John Carney
language: English
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 1 Feb 2017

Following a bit of a theme at the moment, I’m currently making my way through several movies I missed in the cinema last year (this follows The Jungle Book, Your Name, and a few others). I had a cold, and since Japan still has DVD rental stores, I went there instead of doing exercise, and Sing Street was plastered gaudily across the entrance as the latest release of that week. I also finally put my sofa to good use (I’ve had it for a few months, maybe since November), and the new wireless headphones my dad bought me for Christmas, and made a mini cinema setup in my room.

The movie is set in the 1980s (another theme I’ve noticed recently alongside things like Stranger Things is this 80s revival that seems to be happening), in Ireland. The economy is in freefall, and everyone is trying to get out – characters are constantly talking about going to London. The main character Conor’s parents are just realizing that they don’t want to be together anymore, and they have to take him out of private school and send him to the local public school. Then he starts a band to try and impress a girl, and the movie takes it from there. Basically all I knew before watching it was it’s an Irish musical film.

So first of all, the music in this movie is excellent, and I actually bought the soundtrack after watching the movie and still having the songs in my head for the next few days. The songs perfectly complement the story and the journey of the characters, and the kids who play the music are all very talented (a few of them are very much background characters of course). The visual style is equally important, as it’s the story of the pursuit of the perfect music video.

It’s a real old-fashioned feel-good movie – despite the rough situation economically and despite the homophobic and racist attitudes that are rife in the film, it’s still a very optimistic film. It blurs the line a lot between reality and the main character’s dreams and aspirations, never more obvious in the big setpiece scene where his imagination of what the music video should look like takes over, only to crash back to reality.

Like Departure, the scenes showing the parents’ divorce hit close to the bone, too. The movie has real heart but could be very raw with the emotion. Like Your Name, I was worried that the romance would be trite and hokey, but I was cheering them on by about halfway through when the romance kick starts properly.

It’s also a very funny movie – it produces laughs very easily. I was giggling at a lot of the lines, but not just that – as I mentioned, the movie in general has a good visual sense, and the director knows how to pull off a good visual or slapstick gag. I’m thinking in particular of the “cool” boyfriend having trouble driving his car, or the cut to the kids smoking in the shed moments after telling their mum that they never did such things.

It’s a small thing, but one thing I liked a lot was the teenagers in this movie are really teenagers. Especially the ginger kid who does all the filming – he looks really young, as do the main characters. When I was growing up, there was a strong tendency to put 20 year olds in teenage roles, especially in American movies, and I’m glad to see that movies have by and large moved away from that.

Another comedic moment was the disclaimer in the end credits – beyond the usual “this is fiction” disclaimer, there’s a note that says the real Synge Street school, where the film is mostly set, is, 30 years later, much more multicultural and a really accepting environment. The intolerant attitudes from the teachers and pupils in the film don’t make it come across well, of course.

I’m just sitting here writing it trying to think of a way to fault the movie. Too much homophobia, perhaps, but as in the disclaimer above, this is accurate to the era in which the movie is set. Perhaps I find it unrealistic that they get so good at music so quickly, but again, this is part of the whole thing the director is doing where it’s unclear where the music ends and where Conor’s imagination takes over. Everything seems to just… fit.

So yeah, I liked it. I think everyone should see it. What did you think?

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TV: Stranger Things season 1 (2016)

strangerthings1creators: Matt & Ross Duffer
language: English
length: 8 episodes of variable length, 442 minutes total (7 hours and 22 minutes)
finished watching on: 12 September 2016

I was a little late to the game with this one, I guess, but everyone was talking about it this summer. It’s actually set in November, so maybe we should be watching it now, but Netflix apparently likes to release things all at once rather than teasing it out over the course of weeks (which is a blessing and a curse). No, even then it’s a short series and would have been over pretty quickly during the summer.

I usually say that I don’t like horror movies, but I already broke that edict watching such things as The Descent recently. The horror in this is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, actually, although I remember finding that difficult to watch and not enjoying it much. In this series it’s the first episode that is the most creepy, as once we get used to the setting and characters it takes the edge off the scary elements, even as they ramp up towards the end of the series. I actually found Orphan Black creepier this year, perhaps because there’s a persistent sense of threat in that series.

I don’t think I need to summarize Stranger Things too much, because I think most people have seen it already, but just in case, it’s the story of a boy who goes missing, and the people – his family and friends mainly – who look for him. With supernatural stuff thrown in. It’s too complicated to explain beyond that without giving spoilers. That said, I’m pretty much going to do just that. So if you haven’t watched it yet, I’d suggest doing that before reading the rest of this.

The series is set in the 1980s, and takes great pains to show us so. This is to do with the creators’ upbringing mainly, but also draws to mind classics such as E.T. and other horroresque or alien children’s movies. A lot of the 80s stuff felt tokenistic, as if to draw a chuckle from modern audiences, like the phones that are connected by wire to the wall, or a lot of the other technology the children use, or indeed can’t use because it hasn’t been invented yet. Walkie-talkies are another good example. But at the same time, they integrated all the stuff well into the story.

Music is also very important, and one leitmotif that often comes up is the song Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash – indeed, I’ll never think of the song the same way again. Once we find out about the Upsidedown, and actually see inside the eldritch world, the sound design comes into its own, too.

When I saw the first episode, and there was this giant alien portal in the government compound, I thought they’d given away too many of their cards too early in the show. But as I watched it a bit more, I realized that we really don’t know what’s going on, not really. We’re thrown hints, mere morsels, from time to time, but the monster isn’t, and we don’t understand what’s really going on with the mum’s lights until the final episode, and then you’re like “Ohhhh!”. I had a few theories as to what was going on, but none of them were correct. I think this is a good way to tell good stories.

As for the characters, everyone was a superb actor in this. The kids are all great in it, and really steal the show, and make it what it is. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised – there are too many cases where the kid actors in something don’t do a good job. They seem to be genuinely nice people too – I hope the fame doesn’t go to their heads. But the teenagers are also important to the story, and Winona Ryder as the haggard mother really puts in a good performance, if slightly over-acted.

And finally, the ending was bittersweet, and I hope good things happen in the next series. So if you’ve gotten this far, tell me your favourite bit. Or go out and watch it if you haven’t already!

Book #94: Ready Player One (2011)

Ready-Player-OneAuthor: Ernest Cline
Language: English with bits of Japanese, Latin
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours, 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 3 December 2015

I originally saw this book set out as the readers’ choice in a bookstore in London before I tracked it down on Audible to listen to. The storyline intrigued me – it’s a sci fi book set largely in a virtual reality world, and the book had received mostly positive press.

It’s very heavy on 1980s references. The plot starts with the death of a famous billionaire responsible for starting the Oasis – a virtual reality world that fills many functions in the future society, including that of Facebook and even the internet itself in today’s society, but stemming from a gaming culture. He pledges the system itself and his vast fortune to someone who can complete an obnoxious series of tasks and find an “Easter egg” – a secret – inside the virtual world. To do that, they have to research him, his interests, and his motivations. That’s where the 80s references come in – it’s video games of that period that interest this character (and presumably the author).

I think it’s attained its popularity directly because of this nostalgia factor. I found that I’m too young to get most of the references that the book makes, which perhaps allowed me to see them for what they were: shallow shout-outs, not really adding much substance to the story. I was quite glad to see that the author’s second novel flopped quite badly, because it didn’t have this element and was a tepid nerd romance – which is also what this book would be without the nostalgic parts.

Basically the romantic subplot of this movie is borderline misogynistic, and heavily focuses on the straight male gaze. I spluttered at the end when it turns out the girl he fancies has, in real life but not in the game, a birthmark on her face, and doesn’t believe she’s pretty until he, the straight male savior, comes along to tell her otherwise.

Not only that, but the whole idea of the knowledge of the 80s ever being useful for something like this is also very much a geek boy’s fantasy, and I loathed that aspect of this book. Perhaps contradicting the 80s side is also the heavy use of early-2000s gaming slang, like “leet” or “haxxor”. I feel defiled, having to hear those words read out loud by Wil Wheaton (who I bet was loving every moment of this book, especially the part where he’s namedropped).

But aside from the problematic stuff, the book is also not well written. A lot of the sentences are awkward, and the story pacing is uneven to say the least. As an example, the first act of the book sees the main character stuck inside the educational side of the Oasis, unable to pay his way to another in-game planet (that doesn’t seem like a nice system or one that would catch on quickly), and without cash in the real world too – somehow able to feed himself despite his aunt (of course he’s an orphan) stealing his food stamps. In the second act, he suddenly comes into money, and he magically knows exactly how to spend it responsibly. A couple of explanatory paragraphs later, and money is never an issue for him. This kind of sudden and sharp change in the situation was par for the course. I’d like to have seen the consequences of the boy’s actions in the real world come back to bite him somehow – he essentially comes into the money by signing some advertising contracts without reading them, which would be an easy way for the author to pin him down later. But they’re never mentioned again.

His origins in the trailer stacks of the midwest was also ripe for exploration that didn’t come. He escapes his aunt’s home in the first few chapters and doesn’t seem to go back. I felt that this part of his character was unnecessary except to show the dystopia of the non-virtual world. There is such obvious opportunity to explore the conflict of the down-trodden, poor man outside the simulation, and the famous man inside it (think Harry Potter forced to live with the Dursleys), that I felt let down that this never happened.

His attitude towards those less fortunate or less clever than him, while common in geek circles, is absolutely reprehensible. We see him in a customer service position later in the book, and he seems to spend his day whining about how awful all his customers are. I just get the feeling the author would be this kind of unpleasant person in real life, too. I bet he complains about the friendzone.

I liked the book for its worldbuilding, however, and I would very much like the chance to explore the virtual world the author describes. I also found myself caring about the main character and wanting to find out what happens when he confronts the villains – who, predictably, are one-dimensional without redeeming features. And the author should really learn what fascist means! He throws it around like a meaningless insult.

I also think that the predictions of the book are accurate. A lot of the future world, including the virtual reality stuff but also the collapse of the economy and other parts, seemed realistic to me. I can certainly imagine this coming about in the next few years.

But while it was fun to explore the world of this book, I feel that a lot of the appeal is the author just shouting “Isn’t this cool??” while we look on, and he equates referencing something with homaging it, which isn’t quite enough. It’s exciting to an extent, but it’s also unrealistic and there are too many wasted opportunities for me to recommend it.