BELFAST (2021)

November 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Despite Irish ancestry, during my childhood, Ireland was vaguely described as a place to avoid due to the Northern Ireland Conflict (also known as The Troubles). In contrast, the childhood of writer-director Kenneth Branagh was smack dab in the middle of this political and religious mess. This autobiographical project is a sentimental look back at his youth and the connection to his career as a filmmaker. This is very attractive and appealing filmmaking, and one that acknowledges the violent atmosphere without dwelling on it.

An opening aerial view of present day Belfast shipyards in full color abruptly transitions back to black and white 1969. A young boy plays and skips cheerfully as he makes his way through the apparently idyllic neighborhood. The pleasantries are shattered and give way to the frenzied fear and havoc created by an approaching angry mob. The native Protestants’ goal is to push out all Catholics from the area. The happy young boy we first see is Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill), the stand-in for Branagh as a child. While watching, we must keep in mind that we are seeing things unfold through Buddy’s eyes – which are actually the eyes of a middle-aged director looking back on his upbringing. This explains the sentimentality and nostalgia, two aspects handled exceedingly well.

Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) live with their parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe, FORD V FERRARI, “Outlander”) and Pa (Jamie Dornan, “The Fall”), and are close with Granny (Oscar winner Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds, one of the finest supporting actors working today). Pa spends much of his time away in London working as a carpenter, leaving Ma parenting diligently to create normalcy for the boys during tumultuous times. An added stress is the financial woes Ma and Pa face over tax debt. Granny and Pop are an endearing elderly couple still very much in love, despite their constant needling and bickering. 

As things escalate, the division over religion becomes more prevalent. Although he attempts to stay out of the fracas, Pa is faced with the “either with us or against us” decision – something he avoids as long as possible. Ma is obsessed with keeping her boys on the straight and narrow, despite their naivety and the many forces pulling them away. The family finds its emotional escape at the local cinema, which treats us to clips of bikini-clad Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS BC; Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper facing off with a similar ‘stay or go’ dilemma in HIGH NOON; John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE; and Dick Van Dyke in his flying car from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. The sense of awe and wonder is laid on a bit thick for effect, but it helps us connect young Buddy with present day Branagh.

It’s quite a family dilemma. How do you decide to pack up and leave the only town you’ve ever called home, and when do you make that decision? When does the danger and turmoil pose too much to risk for your kids? There is a fun scene that provides young Buddy a lesson on how to answer, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” It plays comically but has a serious undertone. Speaking of Buddy, newcomer Jude Hall in his feature film debut, uses his sparkling eyes and an engaging smile to light up the screen. His adolescent pining for Catherine (Olive Tennant), the smart girl in his class, is worthy of the price of admission. All of the actors are terrific, and in addition to young Mr. Hall, it’s Caitriona Balfe (as Ma) whose performance really stands out. Award considerations should be in her future.

Filmmaker Branagh has assembled a crew of frequent collaborators, including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who works wonders with the monochromatic scheme. The soundtrack is chock full of Van Morrison songs – it is Ireland, after all, and the overall feeling is that this is a film Branagh needed to make in order to deal with his childhood prior to his family relocating to England. By not avoiding The Troubles, yet not focusing on it, Branagh has told his story in a personal way that should be relatable to many. It’s a terrific film.

BELFAST opens in theaters on November 12, 2021

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WILD MOUNTAIN THYME (2020)

December 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I have Irish ancestors, the uproar of the Irish press over the accents in the film is a bit puzzling to me. Any frequent movie watcher can tell you that cinema history is filled with actors giving difficult accents their best shot – and the results have ranged from ‘spot’ on to ‘not even close’, and everything in between. As a Texan, I can vouch for the sometimes cringe-inducing ‘not close’ efforts, but I’ve never judged a film by such trivial matters. Why do I start with this? Only to get it out of the way in order to have a more meaningful discussion of the latest film from writer-director John Patrick Shanley (DOUBT, 2008, and an Oscar winner for the MOONSTRUCK screenplay, 1987). It’s based on his 2014 Broadway play, “Outside Mullingar”.

After the breathtaking shots of the Irish countryside over the opening credits, we learn of two neighboring farms belong to the Muldoons and the Reillys. Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) and Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) have known each other their entire lives, and it’s been assumed by locals that they would someday marry each other. Their elderly parents are dying off, yet what prevents the relationship from deepening beyond “Good morning to ya’” is Anthony’s bizarrely awkward social skills compounded by his constant bickering with his father (Christopher Walken), and his belief in a family curse. The two men still mourn the passing of Anthony’s mother, and Rosemary has her own sadness to deal with … while growing a bit antsy waiting for Anthony to come around.

Anthony’s father is concerned that the family name is in danger of ending, due to his reticence to marry. Because of this, dad decides to give the family farm to another relative. The fun kicks off when Adam (Jon Hamm) arrives. Adam is the stereotypical “Yank” – arrogant and showy, with only a romantic notion of what being an Irish farmer means. If that’s not bad enough news for Anthony, Adam also sets his sights on Rosemary and convinces her to visit him. He can’t imagine how the excitement of New York City contrasted with daily life in Ireland won’t win her over.

We don’t actually see any real farming in the movie, and Anthony’s sullen act gets a bit tiresome, but the message is conveyed well by Ms. Blunt and Mr. Dornan. Filmmaker Shanley has delivered more of a romantic drama than romantic comedy, but there are humorous moments included, not the least of which being Anthony’s practice proposal to a donkey. Ms. Blunt proves again what a fine actor she is, and her sequence inside her home in the final act is terrific. As for the accents, Mr. Dornan’s holds up the best, while Mr. Walken’s downright comical, but the story and characters are what we remember when this one ends … unless, of course, you are part of the Irish media.

In theaters and On Demand November 11, 2020

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SYNCHRONIC (2020)

October 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Innovative filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are frequent collaborators, as evidenced by such films as SPRING (2014) and THE ENDLESS (2017). Their films teeter between science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and personal drama, and this latest easily slides into the mind-bending and time-warping space they excel in … and all without the mega-budget we’ve come to expect from such films (I’m looking at you INCEPTION).

The film opens on a couple sharing a motel room and what appears to be an acid trip. Strange hallucinations hit them both. We soon flip to an emergency call performed by best buddy New Orleans paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Their overdose victim is located in a setting where something is just a bit off, and “Time is a lie” is written on the wall. When Steve and Dennis are called to the motel of the first scene, we all start to understand something bizarre is happening.

Dennis is married to his wife Tara (Katie Aselton), who has recently given birth, and their headstrong 18 year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) lives with them. Steve’s days consist of one-night stands, more booze than any person should ingest, and time with his loyal dog Hawking (an obvious reference to the elements of time at play here). Dennis is bored and Steve is a mess, and things get worse when Steve is diagnosed with a brain tumor by his pineal gland, and Dennis’s daughter Brianna disappears.

A clue to the increasingly bizarre overdose and death scenes that Steve and Dennis run into is the “Synchronic” packaging. It’s a synthetic/designer drug that has dramatic and lethal effects, and a packet was found where Brianna was last seen. Steve decides to test the drug in an effort to “bring back” his friend’s daughter. As Steve videos his 7 minute trips to the past, and then kindly spells out everything he discovers, we viewers are spoon fed the details that would typically require some effort. Beyond the reference to Stephen Hawking, we also get plugs for French composer Claude Debussy and a rare James Bond- Charlie Sheen joke.

Time travel has long been a fun topic for movies, and the ideas behind this one are quite promising. The only downsides are that it too obviously guides us through what’s happening, and the trips back in time aren’t as structured or interesting as we would hope … although the idea of having the past be in the identical spot as the future is terrific. Benson and Moorhead are ambitious and creative filmmakers, and their shot at appealing to mainstream audiences is appreciated, as is the atmosphere and camera work. However, many of us would rather a bit more be left to our imagination.

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A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Marie Colvin was a (seemingly) fearless war correspondent obsessed with giving a voice to those forgotten during war. Were she alive today, she could not have hand-picked a better filmmaker than Matthew Heineman to tell her story. Director Heineman was Oscar nominated for CARTEL LAND (2014) and, combined with his CITY OF GHOSTS (2017), gives him two of the best ever documentaries that show what the front lines are like in both international wars and the equally dangerous wars being fought over drug territories. Heineman has carried his own camera directly into the center of those storms, while Ms. Colvin took her pen and pad. Simpatico.

Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” (screenplay by Arash Amel), the film benefits from the extraordinary and courageous work of Ms. Colvin, and also a terrific performance from Rosamund Pike (words I’ve not previously written). Ms. Pike captures the extremes of Ms. Colvin’s life – the atrocities of war and the self-prescribed treatment of her PTSD through vodka, and does so in a manner that always seems believable. She lets us in to a world most of us can’t imagine.

As a war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times (since 1986), Ms. Colvin told the stories we’d rather not know. In her words, “I saw it, so you don’t have to.” The film begins with a stunning overhead view of 2012 war-ravaged Homs Syria (destruction courtesy of Assad’s soldiers) – a place that starts the film and later ends the story. We then flash back to 2001 London so we can witness Marie in society and struggling with a personal relationship. She then chooses, against her editor’s (Tom Hollander) guidance to cover Sri Lanka. It’s a decision that cost her an eye, while also providing her recognition as the eye-patch wearing female war reporter.

In 2003, a tip takes her to a previously undiscovered mass grave site in Fallujah. This is her first work alongside photographer Paul Conroy (played by Jamie Dornan). Having “seen more war than most soldiers”, Ms. Colvin’s severe alcoholism can’t kill the nightmares, visions, and PTSD. After time in a clinic, she returns to work. We see her in 2009 Afghanistan and then pulling no punches when interviewing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. During these assignments, we learn much about Ms. Colvin’s personality and approach. She is rarely without a cigarette, admits to wearing Le Perla lingerie (and why), carries Martha Gellhorn’s “The Face of War” as her field manual, and wins two British Foreign Journalist of the Year awards – though seeing her at the banquets is quite surreal.

Hollander’s subtle performance as news editor Sean Ryan is also quite impressive. He fears for her safety (and even questions her sanity) but is in constant conflict with the need to sell newspapers – something Ms. Colvin’s stories certainly did. Stanley Tucci has a role as Tony Shaw, her love interest, but despite her words, we never believe he and his sailboat are ever more than a distraction from her obsession with the front lines. The final sequence in 2012 Homs Syria is stunning, as is her final interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Ms. Pike has altered her voice to mimic the deeper tone of Marie Colvin – her efforts confirmed in the final interview played at the film’s end. It’s quite a career boost for Ms. Pike, who has previously been known for playing ice queens in films like GONE GIRL. She captures the traumatized Marie, but also the obsession of someone whose DNA constantly drove her back to the stories that needed to be told.

Director Heineman’s unique perspective combined with the cinematography of 3 time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (a favorite of Scorcese, Tarantino, and Oliver Stone) delivers a realism of war that we rarely see on screen. Mr. Richardson also shot SALVADOR (1986) and PLATOON (1986) and his work here surpasses both. The film gives us a glimpse at the psychological effects of such reporting, and a feel for the constant stress of being surrounded by tragedy and danger. This is fitting tribute to a courageous and very skilled woman, although I do wish the men weren’t constantly helping her out of trucks and jeeps.

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ANTHROPOID (2016)

August 12, 2016

Anthropoid Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 70 years since the Second World War ended, and it’s still producing fascinating stories, books, and movies. Director Sean Ellis co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin after tireless research into a secret mission of the Czech resistance known as Operation Anthropoid. The purpose was to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, third in command of The Reich behind only Hitler and Himmler.

Hitler invaded Poland the year after taking Czechoslovakia and put Heydrich in charge. In addition to being the main architect behind the Final Solution, Heydrich became known as “The Butcher of Prague” as thousands of citizens were slain under his reign of terror.

The story is split into two distinct parts … the buildup and the aftermath. It’s late 1941 when we see Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) parachute into the territory outside of Prague and make their way to the city only to discover their contact has been killed. Over the next few months, the two soldiers spend time planning, observing and blending in, while living with their host family – the Moravecs. They become attached to two local ladies (Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislorova), first as cover for the mission, and then in a more personal manner as tension builds and the mission gets closer.

Many of the original, historic and actual locations are used which adds an element of realism to a story that’s already plenty real and emotional. The second half of the story is what happens after the assassination. Seven of the original parachutists go into hiding in the basement of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. The manhunt is brutal and extensive, and once the hideout is discovered, a seemingly unending parade of German soldiers and ever-increasing weaponry are unleashed. It’s a beautifully filmed, but gut-wrenching scene … think of the last stand at The Alamo.

An extended shootout (6 hours in real time) may not seem like a fun day at the movies, but this story goes to the bravery and desperation of those who refused to give in to the relentless savagery of the Germans. In addition to Ms. Le Bon and Ms. Geislorova, Czech screen vet Alena Mihulova is another standout here. The pacing of the story telling is a bit off at times, but director Ellis brings historical accuracy to a fascinating story in ways that movies such as Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds didn’t even attempt. As courageous as those in the resistance were, the aftermath and reprisals do beg the question … was it worth the price? Not an easy question to answer even in hindsight.

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