By Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the busiest, with shopping, parties, shopping, family get-togethers, shopping, decorating, and did I mention shopping? Not to mention the glut of year-end movies as the Oscar race intensifies. How can anyone keep up? Your faithful movie reviewer is doing her best. Here is a roundup of some recent releases.
Director Kenneth Branaugh grew up in Belfast in the 1960s during the Troubles, and Belfast is his nostalgic reminiscence of that childhood. Don’t expect a primer on the Troubles; they’re seen through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), an adorable kid who lives in a row house with his older brother and unusually attractive parents (Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan). It’s the sort of street where everyone knows everyone else, half of them are related, and everybody helps raise everybody else’s kids. Buddy is playing in the street one day when the neighborhood suddenly erupts with Molotov cocktails and rioting. He is horrified, but quickly adapts to a new normal as his street is blocked by barricades. He’s more concerned with impressing a girl at school than with why his world has changed. Still, as he sees Catholics on his street being hounded by the local bully and forced to move out, he asks a friend how you can tell who’s Protestant and who’s Catholic. By their names, she replies; Protestants have certain names and Catholics have certain other names. How can that be, Buddy wonders, when his Catholic school friend and his Protestant cousin are both named Thomas?
Buddy’s Pa works as a carpenter in England, coming home only on the weekends, and wants the family to move there where the boys can be raised in safety, but Ma can’t imagine leaving the neighborhood where they know everyone and going somewhere where the culture is different, no one will understand their accents, and they’ll be subject to prejudice. And Buddy can’t imagine moving away from his doting grandparents (Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds). The decision takes a while to make, and in the meantime Buddy and his family try to live normally. Buddy is fascinated by TV and the movies, and the shows and movies he watches all have to do either with different types of people getting along (Star Trek) or with standing up to bullies (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon). When Pa stands up to the local bully, of course the High Noon theme plays on the soundtrack. (The rest of the soundtrack is mostly Van Morrison songs.)
Branaugh’s affection for his hometown is evident in every frame of Belfast. Hill is terrific as Buddy, cute without being cutesy, and natural in his reactions. Balfe excels as a woman who is trying to keep her family together under the most trying circumstances. The central conflict of the film – to stay or to go – couldn’t be more timely, as refugees from violence and economic collapse are streaming around the world.
Verdict: Recommended. A fine film, energetic and nostalgic without being sentimental, and one suitable for families with older kids.
Disney’s latest animated feature is about a displaced Columbian family that is gifted with magic that allows them and their community to find a new home. The magic infuses the Madrigal family’s house, which shelters and protects them while communicating with flapping tiles and shutters. It also gifts each member of the family with their own superpower – strength, beauty, hearing, healing, shapeshifting – all except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). She loves her family and they love her, but somehow she’s not enough for them, or even for herself, without a special talent. But when Mirabel suspects that the house is losing its magic, she may be the only one who can save it.
Encanto has terrific animation. The colors are bright and vibrant, and the details of the embroidery on the clothing and of the characters’ hair is extraordinary. The engaging songs are by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the cast is mostly of Colombian descent. The movie has a nice message about unconditional love and the intrinsic value of a person being separate from the value of their talents and skills. It’s refreshing to see that Mirabel’s perfect princess-like sister, who would have been the lead character in previous Disney films, doesn’t have a perfect life and is actually desperately unhappy. Plus, Mirabel is the first animated heroine to wear glasses!
Verdict: Recommended. Enjoyable for kids and adults.
When is a superhero movie not a superhero movie? Eternals almost isn’t; it’s slower-moving and more reflective than most superhero movies, while still following team superhero tropes. The Eternals are a diverse group of beings who have been living on Earth for 7,000 years, having been charged by their distant leader, a Celestial, with protecting humans from the beast-like Deviants. Once the Deviants have been defeated, the Eternals hang around, nudging humankind in the direction of technological advances and lending their names to myths. But in the current day the Deviants suddenly reappear, having gained cunning and intelligence, and The Eternals find out their entire mission has been a lie.
Eternals is crowded with diverse characters, and we see flashbacks of their pasts in ancient civilizations around the world, which is kind of fun. It’s not enough to get to know them that well, but that may be rectified if there are more Eternals movies. Gemma Chan stands out as Sersi, who prefers staying in the background and teaching humans rather than fighting. She finds leadership thrust upon her while being torn between a long-time romance with fellow Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden) and a new human boyfriend (Kit Harington), and she must learn to sacrifice in order to grow into her new role.
Verdict: Recommended for Marvel Fans. If you’re not one, you may want to give this one a pass. As always in the MCU, watch until the end of the credits.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
The French Dispatch is a nostalgic movie from director Wes Anderson about a fictional magazine which is based on the New Yorker. The writers (Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, and Owen Wilson) and the editor (Bill Murray) are based on New Yorker writers and editors. The film is an anthology, much like a magazine, as each writer tells a story, their narration intercut with the actual story sequence. There are more fantastic actors in the main roles of these stories (Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Steve Park), and more cameos than you can shake a stick at (Bob Balban! Henry Winkler! Lois Smith! Christoph Waltz! Liev Shreiber! Willem Dafoe! Edward Norton! Saoirse Ronan! Elisabeth Moss! Jason Schwartzman! Fisher Stevens! Griffin Dunne! Anjelica Huston!)
There are also incredibly detailed sets, some of which are only seen for a few seconds, an animated car-chase sequence, and aggressively symmetrical camera shots. Anderson is known for quirky characters, quirky settings, and quirky screenplays in his quirky films, and this may be the most quirky Wes Anderson movie of all, as he uses every trick in his repertoire. However, it’s not as warm or funny as his previous films. In fact, it’s rather flat, perhaps because there are too many characters, and we don’t get to spend enough time with any of them.
Verdict: Strictly for Wes Anderson fans.
So there you have it – two hits and two slight misses. Follow us here for more movie reviews. We’re doing our best to catch up on the season’s offerings. There are still many more films to go!