Movie Review ~ Belfast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.

Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If they haven’t yet, the Belfast tourist board should consider asking writer/director Kenneth Branagh to film their next tourism campaign.  The opening and closing shots of Belfast, his semi-autobiographical film, show a modern-day Belfast that remembers its history and the working-class people that built it with pride.  These full color moments are fleeting, and soon we’ll be taken into the black and white past to experience a brief moment in time through the eyes of a child during a period of change.  For his family, for his neighborhood, for his country.  At the beginning, you immediately get the impression the story you are about to see is going to be something special.  At the end, you know it was.

It’s the tail end of 1969 and all Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) knows is his small community in Belfast.  At the opening of the film, the neighborhood is besieged by a mob involved with the Troubles, the decades long conflict between Protestants and Catholics which led to much violence and bloodshed.  This attack leaves the area scarred and scared and we get the impression it’s the first time the young boy has seen the idyllic idealism of his youth interfered with in such a massive way.  With his father (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) often off in England to provide for his family, his mother (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) rules the roost and does so with a strong arm but loving heart. 

Guided by his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black) and grandmother (Judi Dench, Skyfall) when his parents can’t be there, Buddy navigates the absence of his father by applying himself in school to impress a girl he likes and reveling in the time his dad is there. These reunions are clearly the biggest memories and some of the most cherished to recreate. While their marriage is strained by the distance, the couple bonds over their affection for their family and wanting to do what’s best.  As the violence increases and the taking of sides is demanded, choices have to be made about the future and what ultimately makes a home.  Is it where you grew up or where you rest your head at night? 

Branagh’s film is, like many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, episodic in nature because that’s often how our memories feel.  He’s smartly placed Buddy in a number of scenes as an observer to adult conversations, allowing his knowledge of important decisions and discussions to make sense.  It’s in that way the film comes off feeling entirely authentic yet dream-like at the same time.  Perhaps it’s Haris Zambarloukos’s (Eye in the Sky) gorgeous black and white photography but at times it does feel like we’re tooling around in someone’s stored memories, their half-remembered dreams of how they recollect certain events.

Having directed a number of films from Shakespeare drama to comedies to action and fairy tales, Branagh understands the magnitude of cinema and uses that scale for maximum impact in Belfast.  I mentioned the opening and closing are in color, but he chooses a few other moments of color to punctuate a point. I won’t give away what those are, but it’s used so well, mostly because it’s exactly the type of thing a child would remember in full, vivid color.  His screenplay is both tender-hearted, wise, and, at times, deeply funny.  For every scene that tugs at the heartstrings (like Balfe’s wondrous monologue to her husband about why she prefers to stay in Belfast) there are lovely, well-tuned moments of comedy that don’t feel shoehorned in for laughs.

Casting is essential and I’m sure it wasn’t a cakewalk having to think about what are pretty much stand-ins for your real life loved ones but Branagh (All is True) has assembled an excellent cast from top to bottom.  Aside from the impressive Hill who so ably carries the film on his small but mighty shoulders, we have Balfe and Dornan doing career-best work as his parents.  The two work believably well as a couple and as parents to Hill and the boy playing his brother.  There’s an easiness to how they act with one another and their brief musical moment where Dornan sings and Balfe dances is sure to be one of my favorite moments of 2021.  Can you ever say a word against Dench?  Speaking or not speaking, Dench is always right there in the scene and completely takes you into the world.  I think my favorite performance might be from Hinds, though, and surprisingly he’s the one that I feel has been talked about the least.  This is the one more people should be looking at because it’s secretly the heart and soul of the movie…and I think Branagh might agree because he’s clearly written in that way.

Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and already on track for a slew of Oscar nominations, this is what you’d call a “contender” and a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  It’s the perfect length and pitched just right to stir your emotions to the balanced mix of comedy and drama.   One of the very best movies I’ve seen in 2021, take this trip to Belfast and a look back into history for Branagh’s special story of growing up in a specific time and place.  Really a joyous experience that fills your cup to overflowing.

Movie Review ~ Home Sweet Home Alone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being left at home by himself for the holidays, 10-year-old Max Mercer must work to defend his home from a married couple trying to steal back a valuable heirloom.

Stars: Ellie Kemper, Rob Delaney, Archie Yates, Aisling Bea, Kenan Thompson, Timothy Simons

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: “Holiday classics were meant to be broken.”  That’s the tagline being used on the marketing for Home Sweet Home Alone, the sixth (!) film in the series that began back in 1990 with the cheeky cheery blockbuster.  It’s a pretty bold statement for any movie to make, least of all one that is so far down the franchise ladder.  In my mind, I was thinking director Dan Mazer and writers Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell (both from Saturday Night Live) had worked up something clever that would rise above the rather tacky logline.  Instead, both they and the film are firmly on The MN Movie Man’s naughty list for 2021 because this isn’t just a lump of coal…it’s a pile of something else entirely.

Formalities out of the way first.  The story revolves not around young tyke Max (Jojo Rabbit scene-stealer Archie Yates) but financially strapped dunderhead married couple Pam and Jeff McKenzie (Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney) who think the boy has made off with a doll that could get them out of their dire straits.  That Max has been mistakenly left behind by his immediate and extended family who have jetted off to Toyko for the holidays is barely the B story.  Halfway through the movie you realize Day and Seidell are far more interested in the perspective of the bad guys than the boy forced to defend his home from a suburban couple who don’t have the first clue about how to break into their own house, much less his.

The result is a painfully unfunny 90 minutes with no one to root for, nothing to care about, and a general awe of just how many wrong decisions could be made in a single film.  If the filmmakers won’t even go the distance with making the movie comically adept, what’s the point?  I kept asking myself (often out loud) who this movie was made for.  Kids won’t find any of the hijinks the least bit hilarious because the physical humor skews so violently painful and realistic, something that will surely astonish their adult parents who will already be aghast at the lack of timely jokes.  Dated references to OJ Simpson and Beverly Hills Cop feel like they came from a script written ten or more years ago and that’s just the tip of the out-of-left-field references iceberg that act more like cultural touchstones for the writer’s own memory book than anyone else’s. 

The small attempts made to connect this movie to what has come before offer glimpses at the right direction the filmmakers could have taken things.  Keep your eyes and ears open for references to the McAllisters and one family member that pops up, along with an admittedly clever (hence the 1 star) update to the video Kevin watches in the first film.  Why the writers and Mazer (The Exchange) didn’t go further with this is beyond me.  We definitely didn’t want to spend so much time with Kemper (Sex Tape) and Delaney (Bombshell) and their obnoxious family, including Tim Simons (Draft Day) showing up as a Cousin Eddie-ish knob that rankles Delaney at every turn. Who cares that this couple needs to sell their house because the husband can’t find a job as in the IT field? Would the original Home Alone have been such a hit if we followed Joe Pesci’s character home and hung out with his relatives? This is premiering on Disney+, a streaming service that took all of the major swear words and objectionable content out of Adventures in Babysitting, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised what they’ve done here.

Let’s also just acknowledge another major problem – the movie looks absolutely awful.  Within the first ten minutes there’s an editing error involving Kemper’s character showing up in two different scenes at once that’s so noticeable I rewound it just to make sure I didn’t fully dream it. How did this make it through a professional editor’s gaze?  There’s also a terrifically terrible scene where the duo is trying to climb over a large wall when we can clearly see a lower wall right next to them…and it’s not for comic effect.  Bad use of green screen which make the actors look like paper dolls and a general lack of kinetic energy in the finale keep the film as lugubrious as the script. Sanitized beyond all measure to leave no one truly “bad”, this is quite truly a pointless holiday cash-in on a beloved family chestnut.

With the first three Home Alone films available on Disney+ (as bad as the third movie is, it looks like The Grapes of Wrath in comparison to this), there’s just no reason to even consider watching Home Sweet Home Alone.  It will only break your heart in unbearable ways, especially when they corrupt the beautiful Oscar-nominated John Williams score and attempt to stir emotions when it doesn’t deserve our sentiment.

Movie Review ~ Red Notice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Interpol-issued Red Notice is a global alert to hunt and capture the world’s most wanted. But when a daring heist brings together the FBI’s top profiler and two rival criminals, there’s no telling what will happen.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Plenty of movies (and good movies) have sailed into financial and critical success based on the charisma of their leading players.  The story may be lackluster and the efforts behind the scenes could be minimal, but get a bona fide movie star, or a combination of stars, in your film and just watch how a dud can turn into a winner.  I’m betting that anyone seeing the trailer for Red Notice, now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters, could have guessed the film was going to be all about its three huge A-listers and the energy they are known to bring to their projects.  How would they have known these same celebrities would be leaving all their valuable (and turns out much needed) screen presence at home? 

Likely the laziest action thriller I’ve seen in years, Red Notice also accomplishes what previously could have been thought to be impossible: making its charming stars totally devoid of personality.  Wait, you may be thinking, is this guy telling us that not only are Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) bland walking posterboards where superheroes once stood but Rampage’s Dwayne Johnson is too?  Oh yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.  Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers) reteams with his oft-collaborator Johnson after their enjoyable Central Intelligence in 2016 and cheesy but fun Skyscraper in 2018 for this hollow bit of blah which is at its best, casually distracting and at its worst, so forgettable from scene to scene that when it inevitably reveals a set of double crosses you aren’t even sure who was originally loyal to whom.

A National Treasure-y plot using historical artifacts finds three eggs belonging to Cleopatra being the MacGuffin in which the adventure centers on.  The location of two of these eggs are known but the third is a mystery.  Of course, it isn’t, or else why would Reynolds as super thief Nolan Booth be trying to gather all three eggs for a rich Egyptian and collect a hefty finders fee before equally skilled cat burglar The Bishop (Gadot) can beat him to it?  Trying to stop them is John Hartley (Johnson) an American copy tracking Booth and The Bishop who only wants to protect the eggs, having a severe distaste for con artists and criminals due to some strained family history with thieves.  Forced to team up with Booth when The Bishop frames them both and gets them tossed in a Gulag style prison, Hartley traverses the globe with his new cellmate while an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) attempts to keep a handle on all three, trusting no one.

It’s a mystery to me just what transpired to have Red Notice turn out as bad as it did.  Maybe it’s because all three roles are too easy for these stars and they are coasting on autopilot.  Made during the pandemic, this was a fast way to stay afloat and perhaps start a new franchise in the process.  I hope the thinking wasn’t that they’d get it right in the second round because this original outing is so limp and uninspired, I wouldn’t want to travel down the block with any of them again.  The only one of the three that seems to marginally understand the assignment is Gadot, but there’s such little chemistry with either of her co-stars (not entirely her fault) that the role winds up sort of flailing in the wind and feeling like a supporting player instead of a third lead.  Banter between Johnson and Reynolds is tired and uninspired and so much of the movie is digitized even the international adventure of the movie feels phony, so you can’t feel involved or engaged for any length of time. 

For a movie of this size and stature, there’s been a relatively quiet amount of publicity for Red Notice and now I know why.  It plays fine as an extremely thin spy flick and nothing more.  It’s the type of uneventful movie with easy solutions that doesn’t bother to explain why a bunker hidden for decades could be found under less than an inch of dirt or why a car that hadn’t been started for almost a century runs like a top with barely a sputter.  It’s because the screenplay said so and nothing else.  If the movie doesn’t bother to think too deeply about why it exists, why should we?

Movie Review ~ Mayor Pete

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With extraordinary access to the candidate, an inside look at the 2020 Pete Buttigieg campaign for President of the United States.

Stars: Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg

Director: Jesse Moss

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As I began watching Mayor Pete, I started to get this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I suddenly began to long to check a bunch of news sites that had laid dormant in my history for over a year and felt the urge to confirm the events of the last twelve months hadn’t all been some Dallas-style Bobby-Ewing-was-just-in-the-shower dream.  That PTSD related to the November 2020 election is still alive for many, and this documentary about the race to secure Pete Buttigieg as the Democratic nominee for President wasn’t the first major media I had faced that reminded me what our country went through.  It was, however, one of the more interesting looks inside the inner workings of a campaign that sought to change and challenge the status quo.  While it doesn’t delve quite as deeply as it could, there’s an interesting portrait provided of a hometown boy makes good while living his life in a way many sadly still condemn. 

Full disclosure, I was never going to vote for Pete Buttigieg to be on the ballot for President.  As a gay man myself, trust me, it had nothing to do with his home life or anything like that.  It was simply that I had other candidates that I leaned toward more at that time.  I think the former Mayor of South Bend, IN has a strong political future and after watching this new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime from director Jesse Moss (Boys State) I’m inclined to think we’ll see him around for a long time. 

The current Secretary of Transportation under President Joe Biden, Buttigieg made the bold move to run for President without holding an office higher than his Mayoral post.  While not unheard of, experience is such a key factor for many voters that his lack of political years in office as a governor or senator meant he faced an uphill battle, not to mention he was also an out gay man married to his husband, Chasten.  Conservative America had only recently elected the first African American president and still was unsteady about a woman holding the top elected office…would they accept a gay man in that same position? 

The film shows that Buttigieg didn’t seek to “normalize” himself as much as refocus the discussion on the things he thought really mattered to the American people…and how that largely succeeded in advancing him far into the races for a time.  Working with his skilled team of young and hungry staff, including senior communications director Lis Smith, a strong and at times foul-mouthed (hence the R-Rating) powder keg, Buttigieg parlays his inexperience in the larger political arena into a benefit in being the change people were seeking for 2020.  For what it’s worth, you can see the idealism present before, during, and (importantly) after the campaign.  If Buttigieg was greatly discouraged with the overall outcome, Moss doesn’t show it and I don’t get the impression this is a total puff piece by the director.

It can be, at times, though.  I think the film skims the surface of the personal life of Buttigieg and rarely digs too deeply into his family history or much in the way of his life with Chasten.  If this was going to be about the man that wanted to be President and lost, giving more context into who he is would help so the next time he’s up to bat there is more info out there for people to draw from.  Keeping those chapters out of this book makes the story feel incomplete and Buttigieg winds up still being that frustrating enigma he was, which I believe cost him the overall primary votes.  It has to be said that his husband also has some…interesting ideas about how much he should be involved and included.  I’m not saying he has an Eva Peron vibe to him but…Don’t Cry for Chasten, South Bend.

Far from a frivolous composition but lacking greater detail to make the story come off as complete, Mayor Pete is a perfectly entertaining watch for ninety minutes and should make fans of his on any level happy.  If you voted for him, you’ll enjoy seeing this process unfold.  If you didn’t vote for him but liked the energy he brought in challenging his more experienced colleagues, I think you’ll appreciate watching the way he thinks about politics and his place in it.  All those that voted for the other guy…maybe give this a watch and see how a friendly, but still competitively agile, campaign can be run by intelligent staff.