By BRUCE DENNILL
Sing Street / Directed by John Carney / PGL
Last Days In The Desert / Directed by Rodrigo Garcia / PGNV
The Lego Ninjago Movie / Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher & Bob Logan / PGV
Gold / Directed by Stephen Gaghan / 16DL
Collateral Beauty / Directed by David Frankel / PG
Coming 2 America / Directed by Craig Brewer / 13PG
There are a good many screen stories about troubled youngsters finding solace – redemption, even – in music. The Hollywood version, however, usually falls short because it doesn’t take into account the genuine incentive that the art provides for the protagonists of such tales, and the indefinable value it has in terms of their self-worth. Sing Street, set in Dublin in the Eighties, places the emphases in the right areas, and is also written with wry authenticity. The film’s director, John Carney, also helmed the Oscar-winning Once, and Glen Hansard, charismatic start of that film, contributes part of the soundtrack here. In this instance, teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh Peelo) is a sensitive outsider whose only ally is his gruffly supportive elder brother (Jack Raynor). The pair’s parents are unable to meet their needs, practically or otherwise, and the school Conor is forced to go to is several times worse than the situation at home, thanks in the main to a brutal headmaster (Don Wycherly) and an aggressive bully (Ian Kelly). There is hope, though, in the form of a new friend named Darren (Ben Carolan), and an attractive older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). In Darren, Conor finally finds a kindred spirit in terms of his commitment to music, and the two form a songwriting partnership that provides solace, pleasure and direction for the youngsters and their acolytes. A finely detailed reconstruction of the period and the location makes the action both compelling and hilarious – this was a time when whatever Duran Duran were wearing in their latest video was considered high fashion, after all. The young and relatively inexperienced cast are the film’s greatest strength, delivering technically excellent performances that overflow with heart and humour. And the music is superb, effervescent and exhilarating and reason enough on its own to watch the film repeatedly. Wonderful storytelling, stylishly executed.
As everyone from Monty Python to Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson will tell you, there is plenty of material in the story of the life of Jesus to make for interesting popular entertainment. Last Days In The Desert, which adds Ewan McGregor to the long list of actors to play Jesus, takes an odd approach, however, adding a fictional chapter to the Biblical account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil. The idea is, perhaps, not a bad one, with the idea being that the god-man is given an additional, more layered test of his character via his interaction with a family going through a tough time and the opportunities for temptation Jesus’ relationships with them create. But director and writer Rodrigo Garcia’s story gives the Son of God none of the authority he displays in the Gospel version of the tale, and the film has a stilted, overly angsty feel that ultimately makes paying close attention throughout a bit of a chore.
Though The Lego Ninjago Movie is perhaps the least convincing of the Lego films so far, it is still largely a hoot for audiences of all ages. “Ninjago” refers to a line of Lego toys – figurines in ninja costumes – and a series of shorts in which the core characters in the line appear. As such, the concept behind this movie is familiar only to those acquainted with that range – a much smaller audience (even for a brand with as wide a reach as Lego) than those who know Batman and other protagonists of previous films. But this story is painted in broad enough strokes that having previous experience with the characters is irrelevant, what with under-appreciated hero Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) being the sworn enemy of the comically evil Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), who also happens to be his father. Add touches of the work of Jackie Chan (who voices Master Wu, Lloyd’s mentor), Transformers and the Power Rangers and you have an action-packed, gag-filled lark that is of no real consequence but which entertains easily and consistently.
Matthew McConaughey has proved himself an incredible interpreter of complex characters, and his role in Gold allows him to play a massively ambitious confidence trickster, giving him the opportunity to layer several personae at once. Kenny Wells is a prospector, an old-fashioned gold-digger working in a modern world of business, shares and auditing, and it is generally only his fast talking and flair for evangelising about his current project that keeps him in business. He appears to get the big break he’s been hoping for when teaming up with a geologist (Edgar Ramirez) and developing a claim on a remote – handily so, in terms of being investigated – Indonesian island, but true to his risk-taking nature, Wells soon reaches beyond his means, setting off round after round of stressful reconsideration of his position and which gambles are worth taking or not. Wells is not a particularly likeable character, but his unwillingness to give up and his capacity to pick himself up and try again where others would’ve been wiped out is admirable. The themes of corruption and greed that run through the plot further complicate the process of identifying with the anti-hero here, and you certainly won’t feel any better about the state of the world when the credits roll.
Every principal member of this cast – and what a cast it is, featuring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Michael Pena and Naomie Harris – is wasted in Collateral Beauty, which manages to be simultaneously insipid and mean. It concerns an ad executive (Smith) who is a leading light in his industry until his daughter dies, whereafter he is, in business terms, a liability. At this point, his business partners (and former friends) try to freeze him out of the business by convincing him that he has mental issues, while he is suffering through crushing grief. Mirren, an actress hired by the partners to play Death (think a cheap rip-off of A Christmas Carol) is the only person on screen who seems to be having any fun, and watching Smith is gruelling rather than gratifying as he goes from trite ad-speak to periods of morose posing. Not only a missed opportunity, but a poor idea that shouldn’t have been expanded on to begin with.
The gimmicky but clever title tweak is about the best, most original thing about this awful sequel to 1988 comedy Coming To America. It’s central tenet remains a fish-out-of-water scenario, though this time, the “humour”, such as it is, revolves around some relatives of the protagonist, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) of the fictional – and apparently backward – African kingdom of Zamunda coming from the US to Africa, rather than the other way around, as in the original. Leslie Jones, as an old conquest of Akeem’s, holds up her end with some trademark bawdy, raucous delivery, but nobody else – including Eddie Murphy – emerges with any credit whatsoever. If this writing had been included in the first film, it would already have been out of date, soaked as it is in old-fashioned misogyny and prejudice parading as satire. It might be more convincing in that regard if there was any real reason to laugh, but other than Jones’ committed performance, there is precious little. For a while there is a hint of awareness in a thread that hints at the idiocy of Akeem’s daughters not being able to succeed him because of their gender, but that potential is smothered by any number of scenes in which women are nothing more than sleazy adornments. Murphy is so much more talented, and so much funnier than this material gives him a chance to be, making it supremely odd that he signed off on everything as a producer. As a means to bring together a bunch of Hollywood buddies – Aresenio Hall, Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones are some of Murphy’s co-stars – Coming 2 America might have been a fun side project for those on set. As more than that, it’s an oddity, and not in an intriguing way. Kudos to South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo for her work on some of the costumes – at least someone has been able to come out ahead via this piece.