Director: Kenneth Branagh
Belfast is like if Jojo Rabbit had been good. Don’t get me wrong, Taika Waititi is one of my favorite directors, I promise I’ve been a fan long before he got famous, but his attempt at mixing humor & history, growing up & branching out, was shockingly poor, embarrassingly timid, and just didn’t work. Here, Kenneth Branagh shows him how it’s done; how to combine happy with sad, war with romance, childhood with history, with room even for a little fantasy & heartbreak. Belfast is one of the best of the year, Top Ten for sure, and should be an example for later of exactly what to do.
Buddy lives with his family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is growing up during the beginning of the Troubles, the political, social, and religious conflict that made the region a war zone for thirty years. His father worked in construction and was forced to head abroad to find jobs, as there were none at home, leaving Buddy, his brother, and his mother fend for themselves quite often. But they were never alone; in Belfast, in their neighborhood, everyone knew everyone, and Catholics & Protestants lived together peacefully. The world pressed in though, with its hates and its dangers, and Buddy, with his family, was forced to consider leaving their home; to find happiness outside Ireland and to always miss those they left behind.
If Jojo Rabbit left me cold, a similar feeling/set up/experience in Belfast warmed me to my very soul. I might be comparing them too much in my head, but they do have a lot in common, and my disappointment in the first made me extra glad that the second didn’t let me down at all. It was simply lovely; spectacular music, beautiful people, awesome accents, a moment in history to never forget, a boy through whose eyes we see it unfold, and a family that never gave up. This is Branagh’s story, his experience, and it feels extremely personal, while also being educational and impactful. I felt like I could feel the emotions the characters were portraying, they were all so wonderful, and I wanted them all to be well so badly. With just a hint of fantasy amid the brutal reality, Belfast tells us a tale of growing up during chaos, and the bonds of love that protect us from so much. An Oscar front runner for sure, Belfast receives most of my heart and all of my support.
Director: George Clooney
The Tender Bar is definitely much better than Hillbilly Elegy, but a similar problem exists in both, which has to do with extreme specificity and stories we really don’t care that much to hear. Years from now, we’ll look back on this bizarre genre as a blip that didn’t need noticed; guy grows up in a dysfunctional environment in a certain U.S. locale, his family has idiosyncrasies and accents, he’s supposed to grow up to be a big shot because he’s smart, but really he becomes a writer, becomes the author of his own story, sells a book, and it gets turned into a film. The major problem is I simply do not care, and it doesn’t look like other audiences really do either.
Junior, or JR to his family, has grown up listening to his father on the radio, but has never really spent time with the man. This bothers him, it haunts his mother, and their lives have generally been miserable since, on account of a worthless 70s disc jockey who won’t pay his child support. Moving back home to Long Island to live with family, JR & his mom try the best they can to move on, with much help from Uncle Charlie, who owns a bar and always seems to have good advice. JR is smart, will go on to attend a fine college, but what he truly wants is to write about his town, his growing up, and the people who made him feel special, since those are the things that truly matter.
JD, JR, Tender Bar, Hillbilly Elegy; too similar, too specific, too hot-right-now, and just too crappy to be considered. Books that are best-sellers that a just memoirs that I can’t really relate to that are made into movies; who are the people that are making these things happen? These are bad stories made into bad films, and they just need to stop, stop, stop it already. Now, Tender Bar has a few things going for it, some saving graces, and that’s OK I guess; great music, solid performances, a few key characters and moments. But, generally, it’s something no one will remember in a year and also something we didn’t need to notice right now. It doesn’t make a impact, skates by, entertains some, but has so little to offer than it’s almost insulting that it ever got made. I found myself rooting for the family, I guess that’s not nothing, but it’s also not much, and when you craft a film there ought to be a stronger connection than that, there simply ought to be, and without it you’ve got footage but you don’t have film.
Director: Ridley Scott
The Last Duel is the best drama of the year, and one of the greatest capturings of brutal history ever to be brought to screen. More Gladiator and The King than Braveheart and Outlaw King perhaps, but that could simply be a matter of personal taste; just being named alongside any in that group is an honor in itself. Ridley Scott knows his swordplay films, knows how to weave the action around the characters, knows when to add in subtleties the same as when to knock us over the head, and that may never be more evident than here, despite all his other successes. The Last Duel is an ensnaring account of an awful event and its equally awful dual antagonists, but done in such a way that I was left spellbound by the telling, only wanting to watch more, know more, and invest more.
This is the true story of Marguerite de Carrouges, a noblewoman of the 1300s in France who had the audacity to accuse a man of rape, rather than stay silent like so many before her. Told in three parts from three different perspectives, the tale unfolds and is layered so that case builds upon case, truth upon lie, forging a tale that would become a history to be discussed for hundreds of years. Jean de Carrouges, a military man by trade, once had a friendship with Jacques Le Gris, his companion in arms, but that relationship soured as Le Gris gained influence with the local lord Pierre, and Carrouges became a court joke. The feud culminated in the disputed accusation; Marguarite claimed to have been raped, Jean sued her attacker, but Jacques declared that the affair had been mutually desired. When no court could settle the matter, an ancient tradition was restored; death by single combat, and let God prove the truth by declaring him the victor, with the liar instantly dead and eternally damned.
The first point I want to bring up, before actually reviewing the film, is the topic of rape broached by this story, because it was brought to my attention that perhaps many would be uncomfortable with that theme being central here, with it being a topic for our entertainment. That is a valid point and a personal choice; do not see this movie if that is a trigger for you, rape is a central theme, and the assault it shows in a scene of shocking account. Paired with the film also showing Le Gris’s perspective/lie, where he sees it as a pleasurable act, that theme could become even more harming for some to watch, so bear that solidly in mind. Much like in Rob Roy, the accounting of the rape can be upsetting, especially when its legitimacy is brought into question, and I feel strongly that each audiences member should know what they are about to watch before they subject themselves to something they didn’t want to see.
With that said, and attempting to move to judging the film as a film, since I am a film critic after all, I found The Last Duel to be a phenomenal representation of the time period, an extremely brutal portrayal of even a wealthy life, a keen eye toward the horror but profitability of war, and a spectacular retelling of history for us all to learn from. On top of that, it’s cinematically and thematically flawless, with style & tempo in every detail, with epic proportions and mundane minutiae combined in a way that you don’t often see. Ridley is a genius, though one that teeters up & down, but this is definitely one of his highest moments, bringing us bloody warfare, desperate survival, libertine hedonism, and common society in a sweeping narrative that I never wanted to stop watching. The plot is divided into three pieces, the perspectives of each of the main characters as events unfold, but staggered in such an intelligent way that the film never feels repetitive. Damon, Driver, Comer; perfect casting choices for these roles, and an excellent job bringing these complex people back to life. On the boundaries were Ben Affleck and Alex Lawther, lord and king, who brought such bold loathsomeness but quiet humor that you at once detested and were bedeviled by them, always stealing the show in the few scenes in which they appeared. But the bulk of the praise must go to Ridley Scott, who crafted this tale from an adapted screenplay by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, and who breathed his own life into the true history, the people who lived it, and the time period that wrapped all in its dirty arms. This is brilliant cinema brought up from the darkest depths, a behemoth with a weapon to wield, and a pure epic like few others.
Director: Michael Pearce
Encounter may have been falsely shelved, like a book someone decided not to borrow and didn’t make the effort to stick back where it belongs. This film was advertised as sci-fi, as alien metaphor, as deeper than the fantasy, yes, but still as an “encounter” movie; I don’t think that was just me making a mistake or assumption. If that was a trick, a red herring, then the joke is on the filmmaker because many who watch this film are not going to be pleasantly surprised. There isn’t any depth here; this is a story about a man with mental problems and trauma having delusions and putting his family in jeopardy because of them. And while that’s an interesting premise, like Take Shelter, that’s definitely not what I thought was coming our way, nor, in this case, what would have made for something good.
Malik is a marine veteran who spent time in prison and who is currently barraged by fears of alien parasites, hostile takeovers, and secret base camps. In order to “save” his sons, who live with their mother, he scoops them up in the middle of the night and whisks them away to safety on a road trip that has no real destination. At first, the boys are having fun with their strange, estranged father; Jay the elder wants desperately to love his dad, Bobby the younger looking forward to no rules and lots of sugar. But the vacation soon turns bizarre as Malik’s delusions increase and his responses turn violent. Jay will have to do the bravest thing he has ever done; stand up to his father, take care of his brother, and save himself from a situation that started out enjoyable but has quickly become deadly.
Riz Ahmed is a god among mortals when it comes to pulling off these disastrous, self-destructive, highly-emotional roles. He knows exactly what to do, he has the skill to do it, and it seems that directors offer him the freedom to dive into the role very deeply, all the way to the dark, dark bottom. But, as incredible as he is, Riz can only do so much; Sound of Metal gave him support and thus is a great film, Encounter does not do the same. This isn’t sci-fi, it isn’t even ambiguous like Take Shelter, it’s just a kidnapping movie, and that’s not what we wanted. It’s also extremely typical/standard/dumb when it comes to the rest of the plot, filling in holes with grotesque cop figures, pulling an ending out of its own ass that could not be more disappointing. Top it off with a preposterously awful performance from Octavia Spencer out of nowhere, feeling like someone’s random next door neighbor was asked to fill in last minute, and you’ve got a movie that simply doesn’t work. It wants to, we want it to, Riz can make magic, but the deck was stacked against him, and the most Encounter can muster is ‘fine’ and that’s only on account of its star.
Director: Jane Campion
A huge favorite to win a ton of awards this season, The Power of the Dog is a powerhouse all its own, and promises to be well-represented. This is one of a handful of films this year that will be a top contender in many categories, which only added to my confusion when I watched it and felt quite the opposite; that it was a big dull dud. I don’t say that lightly, I know that “films” can get that reaction from those who are used to enjoying “movies”, and that’s just not my usual sentiment, but it does fit well here. The Power of the Dog definitely has superb pieces, but it’s overarching quality isn’t superb, it’s subpar, and that troubles me.
Phil and George are brothers who run a ranch together in Montana in 1925. Phil is outspoken, whip-smart, angry, charismatic in the worst ways, and holds his brother to him firmly, speaking often of the past and putting definite designs on the future. George is quiet, plays second fiddle, but has a mind of his own, and when he decides to marry a widow woman, all Phil’s passions erupt in terrible jealousy. Making George’s new wife Rose and her son Peter’s lives miserable is Phil’s new goal, but he is turned from that aim when we begins to come close to young Peter, a boy studying to be a surgeon but with all the outdoor and practical worldliness of an alien visitor. All their fates march toward a violent clash, with the outcome hanging in very fragile balance.
There are aspects I adored about this film, to be sure. The cinematography was breathtaking, the mood was so ominous, the music constantly had me on edge, and the acting, by all, was phenomenal. But like Phantom Thread, Portrait of a Lady of Fire, or a dozen others I could name, mood and acting don’t make great films on their own, there needs to be work put in by the filmmakers to insure that audiences will be engaged by the art that is portrayed, that the story will be more than simply set piece for the metaphor, that there is some convention so that we can sink in and then turn our eyes to the minutiae. The Power of the Dog simply didn’t do enough to capture my attention, my zeal, my enjoyment; had it done that, I would happily have sung its praises even louder for what it did right; the artistry, the depth, the fascination. And I can tell where it went wrong; Jesse Plemons should have been our vehicle into this dark world, he should have been our relief, our guide, our conscience, but no, he was almost absent from this movie, and that was its biggest flaw. Had he brought us into Campion’s world with a little more common style and cinematic normality, I would have perhaps fallen in love with it; instead I was affronted, bothered, and quite a bit disappointed. I would be willing to watch again, to see if I could lay down in the dirt and find myself somewhere among the characters, but I fear that would be an exercise in futility, and perhaps simply not deserved.
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
It would take hours to dive into all the Bonds, past & present, and even into the Craig Bond films, past & present, so I promise, instead, to remain concise and focus more of this movie, this experience, because it does actually, surprisingly, pleasantly deserve it. Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre; there have been some ups & downs, but Craig ends on a high note, a W if you will, for ‘Win’ of course, but also because the first, middle, and last of the series are top, the other two are bottom. No Time to Die is a nice way to say goodbye, and to open the door to others that are surely to come.
James has gone into retirement, with Madeleine at his side, putting the double O days behind him. But of course it’s not over; Spectre isn’t defeated, Blofeld hasn’t finished his tricks, and ghosts don’t rest. Bond is sucked right back in, betrayed by Madeleine and on the hunt for Spectre once again. But this time, they aren’t the only enemy, and the entire world is in danger. Using a killer virus that can target its victim, a madman named Safin looks to wield ultimate power, while those closest to Bond look to take him out of the game.
There are positives and negatives, just like with any Bond film that has come before. The positives are a spectacular ending, the fact that Craig remains a strong James, the gift Ana de Armas is in our lives, and the continuation of this grand tradition, this hero above all other heroes. The negatives are a horrendous opening song, a weird use of CGI, a bumbly story arc, not enough of the magic of de Armas, and the introduction of another 007 who won’t be oo7 and who can’t act their way out of a paper bag. The result; a mix, as you would expect, but one that, for me, trended toward entertainment and the fulfillment of my movie-going desires enough that I was able to choose to ignore most of the obvious problems. No Time to Die is Daniel Craig’s swan song, and there are much worse ways to go.
Here are my NFL Week 14 Picks
(8-6 last week, 115-78-1 for the season)
Bye teams: Colts, Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles