By Alex McPherson

Accessible and brimming with directorial skill, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s future awards hopeful, “Belfast,” is an affecting coming-of-age story set amidst civil conflict.

Taking place during the summer of 1969 in Northern Ireland, “Belfast” functions as a cinematic memoir for Branagh — looking back at a seemingly idyllic stage in his life beset by the brutality of The Troubles between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy (a revelatory Jude Hill) is a boy nearing adolescence, possessing a wide-eyed curiosity and playfulness in his small, mostly Protestant neighborhood. He’s surrounded by his courageous mother (Catríona Balfe), his father (Jamie Dornan) who works in England, brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his rebellious older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell), his lovably sardonic grandmother (Dame Judi Dench), and his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds), who remains Buddy’s primary confidant.. 

As destructive riots begin to take place within and around his community, Buddy (a Protestant) struggles to make sense of what’s happening, if one can even make sense of it to begin with. What matters most to him is having fun and attempting to build up the courage to talk to his school crush (a Catholic girl). The adult world creeping steadily upon his doorstep threatens to permanently influence the person he will become — forcing him to grow up as his parents debate whether or not to leave the only place they’ve called home.

“Belfast” could arguably be faulted for not painting a comprehensive picture of The Troubles, but Branagh’s film remains both uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Seeing the story play out through Buddy’s eyes lends the proceedings a wistful edge, as we observe this young soul — full of life — navigate an increasingly perilous environment with loved ones by his side.

After an in-color introduction showcasing present-day Belfast, the film swiftly transitions to crisp black-and-white photography, evoking the sense of being transported back to an era both fantastical and menacing. The sequence that follows is one of 2021’s best. Buddy’s street devolves from safe and peaceful into utter chaos when a Protestant mob attempting to expunge any remaining Catholics from the neighborhood rounds the corner. The camera swirls around Buddy frozen in fear as the crowd approaches, and we’re launched into an intense situation not completely unlike a horror film. It’s reflective of Branagh’s fusion of tenderness and harsh reality that continues throughout, which makes each moment of grace between the characters all the more meaningful.

Composed largely of small conversations between Buddy and his family, “Belfast” gives the titular setting both a welcoming, lived-in feel, as well as the sense that unexpected violence could strike at any point. Indeed, thanks to the absolutely incredible cast and imaginative direction from Branagh, viewers can feel his passionate longing for those days gone by.

Even though the looming carnage casts a dark shadow over most scenes, there’s still plenty of humor to be found here, particularly in regard to Buddy’s heart-to-heart discussions with his grandma and grandpa about everything from the moon landing to how to woo girls to what to make of the outside world that’s seemingly falling apart.

Moments like these, given added texture through Hinds’ and Dench’s wise, knowing auras, pull at viewers’ heart strings and underline the fact that this resilient family can weather any obstacle if they stick together. Hill is a spectacular performer for someone 11 years old, conveying Buddy’s confusion, wonder, and eventual sadness in completely believable fashion.

The rest of the actors are just as excellent. Balfe is blindingly good as a beautiful, caring, deeply concerned parent who wants to protect her children and is strongly attached to her home base in Belfast. Dornan gives a rich performance as Buddy’s father, a man fiercely against viewing people in absolutes, who faces pressure from a radical acquaintance (Colin Morgan) to join a Protestant gang. The stressed couple fight over barely being able to pay rent and whether to move away, all while Buddy listens nearby, the sparkling glint in his eyes turning to tears.

Cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos does an admirable job depicting Buddy’s community as an interconnected unit teeming with energy where everyone knows each other, implementing tracking shots galore. Characters might be conversing quietly only to be interrupted by someone sitting in the corner of the frame, resembling a stage production. “Belfast” also reverts back to color photography when Buddy and company view a play or film together, likely emphasizing the profound impact that the arts had on Branagh as a child, but simultaneously feeling a bit on-the-nose.

With a soundtrack by Van Morrison accentuating moments of euphoria and tragedy among the characters, and a mournful, jazzy original score, “Belfast” depicts the city and Buddy’s family with a nostalgic glow tinged with sadness and regret. A few scenes feel too far separated from reality, and the film follows a relatively predictable framework, but the power of Branagh’s passion project is difficult to refute, and absolutely worth experiencing.

“Belfast” is a 2021 drama directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds Lewis McAskie, and Colin Morgan. Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. Alex’s Grade: A-   

By Lynn Venhaus
For all his technical brilliance, Christopher Nolan’s ambition and vision sometimes impede his screenplays from making sense. And despite its dazzling action scenes, “Tenet” can’t overcome an unwieldy time-travel plot to make us care – about the future, present or past on screen.

The dangerous time-bending mission is to prevent the start of World War III.

Basically, this jumbo-sized James Bond-type thriller, complete with fabulous gadgets and zippy globe-trotting, is complicated, trying to employ algorithms and explain inversion in its race to thwart doomsday. The layers are murky, the dialogue isn’t always convincing and the complexities lead to overthinking. By midway, it’s a lot to keep straight.

As a director, Nolan’s bombast and daring are unmatched today. And for every letdown like “Interstellar,” there is a masterpiece like “The Dark Knight.” That’s why I look forward to his films, and this one drew me into a theater for the first time since mid-March.

Its stunning set pieces – especially an airport scene and a highway car chase that features speeding cars going backwards, are quite something, and make it a blockbuster worthy of the big screen (and IMAX if you want the upgrade).

As a writer, Nolan’s obsession with puzzles, obviously one of his signatures, and his ability to frame a shot with the fanaticism of a Kubrick, is admirable, but he is often too cold and clinical. With little backstory, we aren’t sympathetic to the principal characters or drawn into their world, with the exception of Elizabeth Debicki, a strikingly beautiful and tall actress playing the Hitchcock blonde, art dealer Kat. She married a vicious oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is keeping her estranged from her young son. And he has plutonium. And tons of money.

Branagh chews the scenery in a cartoonish role, and his thick Russian accent doesn’t help in deciphering his threats, as he attempts to be menacing with a steady monotone.

The Protagonist, John David Washington, seems miscast. As good as he was in “BlacKkKlansman,” he appears ill-at-ease here, and it’s not just in the fancy suits to convince others he has wealth. On the other hand, Robert Pattinson is fine as his handler, the mysterious Neil. We don’t know much about him by design, but he and Washington make a good pair.

Clues are dispensed in a frustrating fashion. Oh, there are many big ideas, paradoxes, secrets — and plenty of head-scratching, but by the third act, interest fades. At 150 minutes, it is not exactly taut, although the action is fluid. When military guys in shields show up in droves, and the visors make them unrecognizable, that is a problem.

Nolan is very serious here – maybe too serious. He is good at harrowing — it just always seems we are kept at a distance. Think of this as “Inception” times 10.

“People saw the world for what might have been,” one character says at the end. This did not help me in understanding.

I don’t go to movies to do math. And you shouldn’t have to see a movie again to figure it out, although I’m not sure a second viewing would help anyway, because the story is too convoluted, not to mention flat dialogue and sound-mixing issues.

The movie is very loud – but Ludwig Goransson’s musical score effectively ratchets up danger and suspense with its ominous tone. Goransson won an Oscar for the “Black Panther” score.

The Nolan production team is stellar – magnificent cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema and smart, crisp editing from Jennifer Lame are among its virtues.

For all its pomp, “Tenet” was a victim of circumstance with its release delayed by the coronavirus global pandemic. It has pulled us back in to theaters, but its lack of connection makes the flaws stand out more than the spectacle.

“Tenet” is an action, suspense film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debecki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine and Hamish Patel. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language. Run-time is 150 minutes. Released on Sept. 3 in movie theaters and IMAX.
Lynn’s Grade: C+
A version of this review was published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times.

By Lynn Venhaus
In the first of eight books in Eoin Colfer’s successful fantasy series, 12-year-old genius Artemis Fowl wants to restore his family’s fortune, so he holds Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a fairy and captain of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance force (LEPRecon), for ransom to exploit the magical Fairy People. In the second book, he allies with the Fairy People to rescue his father. from the Russian Mafia.

Are you with me? At first, he’s a villain and enemy, but as the series continued, he developed and changed into an anti-hero.

The movie, in adapting the first two novels, has substantially changed the story, but if you haven’t read them, you wouldn’t know. However, you can tell that it is a disjointed, disappointing adaptation that will neither satisfy franchise readers nor introduce a compelling story to new fans.

In short, this Harry Potter wannabe is a mess. Resembling bits of Marvel, Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts movies, there is no clear vision in this chaotic mishmash – just a hodgepodge of strange folk that fails to sustain interest, even with all the CGI bells and whistles at their disposal. I am not sure even director Kenneth Branagh knew how to give this story some pizzazz.

Miscasting is a real problem here. Ferdia Shaw is a bland as the lead character who apparently, is a criminal mastermind – but you don’t sense that at all. Josh Gad, as Mulch Diggums, a giant among the tiny folks, and Judi Dench, in a gender-bending role as Commander Root, effect gravelly, growling voices – why? And Gad’s character, in an attempt to make wisecracks and be flippant, got on my last nerve.

Both Colin Farrell and newcomer Lara McDonnel are the film’s saving grace, but they can’t do much about the story’s lack of appeal. Screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl do the source material a disservice. It has been in development since 2016. That is the first red flag. The rest of the problems indicate this is a big waste of time.

This film was set to open in theaters but is now available on Disney Plus.

“Artemis Fowl” is a fantasy, sci-fi film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Colin Farrell, Josh Gad and Judi Dench. It is Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor and run time is 1 hr. 41 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: D.
Available on Disney Plus streaming service as of June 12.

This review appeared in Webster-Kirkwood Times.