Sunday, January 2, 2022
Parallel Mothers (Madres paralelas)
The internationally renowned Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has made many films that masterfully craft mesmerizing and colorful women. He continues that trajectory in his latest film "Parallel Mothers" (Madres paralelas | Spain/France 2021 | in Spanish | 123 min.), which opened last year's Venice Film Festival. It portrays three intertwining mothers with different fates, backgrounds, and experiences. Once again, Pedro Almodóvar gives his frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz a terrific role to play, and she delivers a wonderful performance in return.
In her late thirties, Janis (Penélope Cruz) is an accomplished photographer. She is on a mission to discover the truth about a mass-grave where she believes her great-grandfather was murdered and buried during the Spanish Civil War by Franco's fascist nationalist party. To uncover the mass grave, she needs the help from an archaeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). In no time, she hooks up with Arturo, who is married, and gets pregnant. Janis is overjoyed about her soon-to-be motherhood, while Arturo is not so thrilled about the news.
Right before she gives birth, Janis meets and befriends an unhappy pregnant teenager Ana (Milena Smit) whom Janis shares her hospital room with. Ana's pregnancy is also an accident, but she is stressed out about it because Ana's mom Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an aspiring actress, has little interest in parenting and Ana cannot expect much help from Teresa to raise the baby.
Little do they know, after both Janis and Ana give birth to a baby girl, these three mothers' lives are forever intertwined, and they have to face the consequences of each action they take along the way.
As in most of Pedro Almodóvar's films, the director uses sumptuous visuals and bright colors in his storytelling, and it's no exception in this film. Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit both look gorgeous in addition to giving terrific performances. But most notably, Pedro Almodóvar writes a script that challenges the audience's expectation in every step of the way. Just when you think a character won't go in a certain direction, you will be given a surprise by the story as she will go there.
The twists and turns of the drama are so captivating that you will forgive a few implausible plot developments. (Unfortunately, I cannot be more specific without revealing spoilers.) It's fascinating to watch how Janis struggles with her moral dilemma between uncovering the truth of history and living the truth of her real life. Equally satisfying is to see Ana's transformation from a vulnerable teenager into a confident mother figure. Even for Teresa, Pedro Almodóvar gives her a voice to express her regret for not being able to be there for Ana when Ana needs her. He brilliantly creates three parallel mother characters who are very different but also share a common principle.
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Top Ten Films in 2021
Even though we still have not come out of the devastating pandemic yet, films are now opening at a pace similar to the pre-Covid level. After skipping composing a top-ten list last year, now I resume this annual tradition. Here are the ten best films among the 287 feature-length narrative and documentary films I watched during the calendar year of 2021, no matter when and if a film was released in the US during 2021.
The director Debbie Lum and her crew followed Lowell's senior class for an entire year in and out of school and turned 300 plus hours of footage into an intimate, insightful, endearing, heartfelt, and inspiring documentary "Try Harder!"
The Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda's intelligent feature directorial debut "Nine Days" unfolds a nine-day-long process of selecting a soul to be born into a human life on earth. It's a thought-provoking reflection on human life and our own existence.
You Will Die at 20 (Sudan/France/Egypt/Germany/Norway/Qatar 2020 | in Arabic | 103 min.)
Sudan’s first Oscar entry, the director Amjad Abu Alala's radiant debut "You Will Die at 20" tells an arresting story about a boy who is under the haunting prophecy from a Sheikh that he will die at the age of twenty.
The Whaler Boy (Китобой | Russia/Poland/Belgium 2020 | in Russian/English | 93 min.)
The Russian writer-director Philipp Yuryev's feature directorial debut "The Whaler Boy" terrifically tells a captivating story of a 15-year-old boy in a remote fishing village who falls in love with a webcam girl from the United States, and he takes on an incredible journey to meet his love.
Minari (USA 2021 | in Korean/English | 115 min.)
- Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało | Poland/France 2019 | in Polish | 115 min.)
Thursday, December 23, 2021
The Tragedy of Macbeth
For over four hundred years, William Shakespeare's play The Tragedie of Macbeth has been performed on stage and adapted into other formats, including motion pictures numerous times. Yet, the Academy Award-winning director Joel Coen offers another exquisite take with his grand "The Tragedy of Macbeth" (USA 2021 | 105 min.). Besides the powerful performance, the film's stunning visual and lavish production design are magnificent on the big screen. This is the first time Joel Coen has directed a film solo without his brother Ethan Coen as a co-director after they made eighteen movies together.
At the beginning of the film, King Duncan's (Brendan Gleeson) kinsman Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his friend, general Banquo (Bertie Carvel) emerge from the fog when returning from a battle with a victory. They are confronted by three startling witches (Kathryn Hunter). The witches predict Macbeth would be the king, but Banquo would be the father of a future king.
After King Duncan commends their victory, he names his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) as his heir. That declaration enrages ambitious Macbeth who has been eying the throne. Macbeth sends a letter to Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) back in the castle to inform her about the upcoming visit of King Duncan.
Still childless after passing her child bearing age, Lady Macbeth believes the only way for Macbeth to take the throne is to murder King Duncan. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth waste no time killing Duncan in his sleep, and Macbeth becomes the King of Scotland while Duncan's loyalists flee, including the Thane of Fife—Macduff (Corey Hawkins).
But that kingship does not bring Macbeth the satisfaction he seeks. Instead, he is paranoid about his political rivals and haunted by their ghosts. He is driven into madness and starts a bloodshed to eliminate his allies. Not only does he kill Banquo, but he also orders the killing of Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram), as well as their young son and servants among others.
In revenge, Macduff gathers forces and comes back to Scotland to fight Macbeth. After a fierce battle, Macduff beheads Macbeth and Lady Macbeth commits suicide. The bloodbath finally comes to an end.
The writer-director Joel Coen is rather faithful to the well-known play in his adaptation. However, he made an artistic choice for the film's format to be an almost perfect square aspect ratio (1:19) and in gorgeous black and white. It immediately draws you into an atmosphere that is both mysterious and mesmerizing, and offers a fresh look at the four-hundred-year old yet timeless tale that can never escape our imagination.
The setting of each scene is remarkably simple as if you are walking into a stunningly designed modern home waiting for its residents to move in, and the characters are strategically positioned in each frame to become the focal point. Even though the film has a stage production feel, the director Joel Coen meticulously designs the length and angle of each shot to make viewing the film an arresting cinematic experience.
Watching the film is similar to going to an opera, not only because of the film's grandness, but also the fact that you probably won't get every word spoken by the characters—they certainly don't use the vocabularies you text on your phone nowadays. Unlike other movies, this film's plot has been out for four hundred years, so there is hardly any spoiler left to avoid in its synopsis. Therefore, just like going to an opera, it's helpful to read the synopsis beforehand in case this famous Shakespearean tragedy has faded in your memory.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
The Matrix Resurrections
If you walk around the Civic Center area in San Francisco, you don't have to look hard to see some homeless people on the sidewalks who are tripping on drugs. They appear to be out of their reality and into another world. I am not sure if that's where the director Lana Wachowski got her inspiration for the 4th installment of the Matrix franchise, "The Matrix Resurrections" (USA 2021 | 148 min.), because the film's characters definitely sound like they are tripping and the film's narrative doesn't make sense, despite the characters are constantly explaining themselves. It has been about twenty years since the Matrix trilogy was released, so it's understandable for the filmmaker to feel obligated to remind us what the fuss is about in the world of the Matrix. However, the more explaining these characters try to do, the more confusing the story becomes.
The central characters of the series are Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who now are about twenty years older in this film than in the previous trilogy when they saved the world together on a motorcycle. Neo lives under the name Thomas Anderson as a developer in a gaming company in downtown San Francisco co-founded by a cocky and handsome brat named Smith (Jonathan Groff). Trinity, however, is a married woman named Tiffany with two kids. Of course, Neo and Trinity don't know each other as Thomas and Tiffany at first.
With long hair and a beard, the doleful Thomas is having issues figuring out the difference between his hallucination and reality. He seeks help from his therapist, the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who is probably the only character in the movie who speaks with coherent sentences.
After several sequences of chaotic fighting, Thomas and Tiffany team up together again as Neo and Trinity to watch the sunrise over the spectacular San Francisco skyline. (I happened to be walking down the streets that morning when they were filming on the roof of that building.) Okay, maybe they are together for something else, but who knows what.
Sure, in a sci-fi film setting, things might not make sense from a human's perspective. But nothing seems to make sense in this film. If you are not familiar with the three previous films or have already forgotten about them, you would probably have a hard time getting the story, if the film has one. The director Lana Wachowski certainly knows about the situation, so she uses her characters, such as Bugs and Morpheus, to constantly mumble about what they are doing and why. That behavior totally resembles the drug users on the streets of San Francisco, who talk nonsense to themselves all the time.
As an action flick, the film has plenty of kung fu fighting sequences and flying bullets, but it looks just like a mutation of any other sci-fi action film, except with a funny twist by adding some zombies to the San Francisco streets. When it comes to acting, while the terrific Neil Patrick Harris is having a ball playing that manipulative psychologist, Keanu Reeves looks dreadful throughout the film and never smiles.
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home
In a tight red-and-blue bodysuit with two big eyes, his one hand sticking out into the air, another hand touching the ground to support a squatting body—that's probably the image in your mind when you hear the name Spider-man. But unless you are a die-hard fan of Marvel comic books and their adaptations, you probably won't remember much about what happened in any of the other dozen Spider-man movies. Yet, as if the plot is so crucial for the director Jon Watts's latest Spider-man installment "Spider-Man: No Way Home" (USA 2021 | 150 min.), there was a clip pleading for "no spoilers" from the film's actors at the beginning of the press screening I attended.
Yes, we all hate spoilers (and I won't give any as always), but the truth is that this film won't be any different from the others in terms of its plot—you won't remember much about it by the time the next superhero movie comes out. Instead, what you might be surprised by in this movie is not its plot, but how emotional, funny, and touching it sometimes is. That's rare for a superhero movie that is expected to be an exposition of mindless fights, of which there are certainly plenty during the two and a half hours running time in this movie.
At the beginning of the film, the TV anchor J. Jonah Jameson reveals to the public the identity of Spider-man—he is a high school senior named Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who lives with his aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei) in New York City. Spider-man has been blamed for a lot of destruction around the city, even though Peter is trying to do good deeds and fence off the enemies.
Peter has high hopes for admission to MIT with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and their best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon). But because of Peter's Spider-man identity and their friends' association with him, none of them are considered by MIT. In order to get another chance at admission, Peter asks his friend Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help.
Doctor Strange claims that he can put on a spell to erase people's memories about Peter's Spider-man identity. So he moves around his arms like a witch and generates a glowing and floating spectrum. Well, that spell works, but not as expected—it brings in many villains from the Multiverse, including the multi-armed Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), the angry Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), the destructive Electro (Jamie Foxx), the sad looking Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), the clumsy The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), among many others.
Being a good-hearted 17-year-old trying to save the world, Peter has to make a tough decision in order to fend off all these creatures from the Multiverse.
As a superhero film, this movie is no exception from spectacular computer generated images of fighting and explosions. While it can be exciting at times, there is nothing original in that regard in this new episode of the endless battles among the super beings. If any of the visuals feel new to you, you probably have not seen enough films adapted from Marvel comics.
But when these characters are not fighting, the movie becomes much more interesting, funny, and sometimes even quite sentimental with a music score as the catalyst for making your eyes moist. Tom Holland is terrific as the likable protagonist who does not just possess supernatural ability, but is also genuinely sensitive and saintly good in his heart. It's remarkable that for such a surreal character, Tom Holland is able to make it both convincing and touching. That's perhaps the biggest surprise from watching this film.
Monday, December 13, 2021
Four years after winning the Oscar with "The Shape of Water" (2017), a romance story involving an amphibious creature, the writer-director Guillermo del Toro returns with a gripping human crime story in a dazzling film noir "Nightmare Alley" (USA/Mexico/Canada 2021 | 150 min.). This is the second adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, and it's remarkable the story can still resonate with today's American society after three-quarters of a century. Guillermo del Toro once again shows his excellent craft in storytelling and unveils his arresting characters like a skilled showman during a magic performance. Bradley Cooper may finally get his Oscar for playing the ambitious and deceitful protagonist who is unable to escape the grave he digs for himself.
That protagonist is Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). In the opening scene, set in the late '30s, he drags a body into the middle of a house before he sets it on fire. Then he drifts to a traveling carnival, led by Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe). Even though Stanton says very few words when he first gets a job from Clem and is offered a place to sleep, his keen eyes take in everything he observes. He learns the secrets of mind-reading from Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). He falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who runs electricity through her body, and practices the mind-reading act with her. But Stanton doesn't see this traveling carnival as his destination. He has bigger ambitions than entertaining the public who pays quarters to see freaks and geeks. He wants to have his own show and make more money. He persuades Molly to join him and leave the carnival, against the advice of Bruno (Ron Perlman) who has been a father figure to Molly.
The movie then proceeds into its second act, taking place in the upper class society in New York in the '40s. Dressed in a fine tuxedo, Stanton now performs his mind-reading acts with Molly among the rich elites. During a performance, Stanton meets an astute psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a true femme fatale. After learning Lilith has access to many wealthy clients, Stanton sees a bigger opportunity to pull off a con job with her, against a tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). As Stanton slickly plans out his deception schemes while being sexually involved with Lilith, he sinks deeper into a dangerous game of illusion and becomes part of it himself.
Despite the interruption in filming for half a year because of the pandemic, the director Guillermo del Toro and his team terrifically created a gorgeous looking film that conveys this timeless story. While the first half of the film vividly displays the grim atmosphere in the traveling carnival world often associated with mud and rain, the second half contrasts it with the most sumptuous decor, often with tranquil snow falling outside windows. It's two completely different worlds, and Stanton tries to cross from one to another. But his greed and his own ego nail his fate and doom his ambition.
Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett marvelously portray the two fascinating characters who are both playing dangerous mind games, one is charismatic and the other is foxy. They both think they are smarter than the other, and both are driven by the desire for money, control, and recognition. The traits of these characters are still relevant to today's American society, even though they were written a long time ago. That might be the reason for Guillermo del Toro to be drawn into recreating them instead of another story about supernatural creatures, and he delivers handsomely.
Friday, December 10, 2021
West Side Story
It has been sixty years since "West Side Story" (1961), the first film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, swept ten Oscars and made Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics emblems of American pop culture. Six decades later, the legendary director Steven Spielberg presents us with "West Side Story" (USA 2021 | 156 min.), a splendid remake of the earlier film based on a new script by Tony Kushner. It surely will regenerate the magic that has captivated the audience for generations, and it is guaranteed to get a truck load of Oscar nominations.
As a remake, the new film keeps most of those musical numbers that people are familiar with, as well as some of the elegant dance moves originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins. However, its casting is notably changed. It has all the Latino characters, which were mostly played by white actors in the 1961 movie, played by Latino actors. In this updated version, sometimes the characters even often have Spanish dialogues without subtitles, just like in real life!
The story is still set in the '50s, when the low income Upper West Side of New York City is demolished to make room for the Lincoln Center. The neighborhood is predominantly occupied by immigrants from Puerto Rico and poor white residents. The streets and the demolition sites are the playground for two rival gangs. One side is the white gang, the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist) and Tony (Ansel Elgort). The other side is the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez).
Bernardo's sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) both work night-shifts as cleaners in a department store. Bernardo wants to set Maria up on a date with Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) at a local school dance. But when Maria and Tony spot each other at the dance, they fall madly in love, which doesn't sit well with Bernardo and Chino.
The Jets and Sharks plan to have a rumble. But Tony is no longer interested in fights like this, having recently been released from prison and working at Valentina's (Rita Moreno) drug store. He wants to set his life straight and now all he wants is to be with Maria. When Tony learns about the fight, he promises Maria that he will go and stop them. Unfortunately, not only does he fail to stop the fight, but he also becomes part of the tragedy following the fight.
While preserving much of the original materials, the director Steven Spielberg fantastically adds new life and fresh perspective in this remake. The new script highlights the gentrification in the '50s in New York City, and brilliantly replaces the original store owner character with the Puerto Rican widow Valentina. The Academy Award, Emmy Award, GRAMMY Award, Tony Award, and Peabody Award winner Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie (which won her the Oscar), now gives a marvelous performance as the wise and loving Valentina. She might just get another Oscar nomination for it.
All the actors beautifully transcend their elegant and jubilant dance moves into incredible energy. They make us realize time and again the magic of dancing on the streets in New York City. When the camera circles around the heartthrob Ansel Elgort as he sings his heart out with the melody of "Maria", you cannot help but believe the existence of love-at-first-sight. When the 89-year-old Rita Moreno (she will turn 90 the day after the movie's opening night, what a birthday gift!) delivers a poignant "Somewhere," you will be inspired by hope.
Six decades later, this triumphant remake of a classic will make history yet again.
Monday, November 22, 2021
House of Gucci
In the fashion world, a brand can add significant value to the products bearing that brand's name. Can that be true when a famous brand such as Gucci is put in a movie's title? Maybe, if the movie is done right. But that's not the case for the director Ridley Scott's new film "House of Gucci" (Canada/USA 2021 | 157 min.). Like a fake Gucci bag, the film is almost like a counterfeit to the director's own body of work. That lack of authenticity can be felt throughout the film, from the acting to the accents; almost everyone seems to be pretending to be real.
The film is based on Sara Gay Forden's 2001 book with a title that summarizes the scandal ridden fashion empire—The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. It would have been interesting if the movie were made by Italians. But instead, it's made by Americans on locations in Italy, and every shot of the Italian city is more real and appealing than the film's characters.
The story starts to unfold in Milan in the '70s. The flamboyant Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) works at her father's trucking company. When she meets the shy law student Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the only son of Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons) who runs the Gucci brand in Italy, she knows how to get to his target and win Maurizio over. Sure enough, despite the objection from his father and his uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), Maurizio gets married to Patrizia.
But getting married into Gucci's family is just the first step for Patrizia as a social climber. She is eying for a much bigger prize after Maurizio's father Rodolfo dies. Patrizia teams up with Aldo to persuade Maurizio to get back into the family business. Then they manipulate Aldo's outcast son Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto) to sell his share. As Maurizio gains more control of the Gucci brand, he grows more ambitious. Meanwhile, he becomes less interested in Patrizia and eventually divorces her. Furthermore, Maurizio makes Aldo reluctantly sell his share and gains full control of the Gucci brand. As his enemies pile up, the Gucci empire is deep in the red, so he brings in Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) as the designer to revive the brand. But does he have the ability to save the Gucci empire, as well as himself?
Even though there is never a lack of drama in this famous Italian family, the film does not have any dramatic moments to be remembered for. Somehow the director Ridley Scott manages to show off the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous but fails to create convincing characters. From the movie, we can't tell why Patrizia and Maurizio fall in and out of love, and there is no chemistry on screen between Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, no matter how hard they try.
Almost all the actors look like they are awfully conscious of the fact that they are acting, instead of immersing themselves into the characters they are playing. There is only one exception, Jared Leto, who becomes completely unrecognizable by transforming himself into the bald and bullied Paolo. He is the only actor who is so comfortable in playing his character and offers plenty of comic relief. While Jared Leto becomes another person with the help of makeup, Adam Driver oddly looks exactly the same from the '70s to the '90s in the film, except for wearing increasingly more expensive clothes.
This is a film about an Italian family's saga which mostly happened outside the US. It would have made sense if they were played by Italians and spoke their native language. Instead, these characters are played by English-speaking American actors, but they are asked to speak with a funny Italian accent. Occasionally, they spill the word "Grazie!" as if they are practicing a new foreign word they've just learned. It's awkward for the actors to speak, and it's even more distracting for the audience to listen to. Using a fake accent only makes these characters on screen look more fraudulent.
In one scene, Al Pacino's character Aldo Gucci complains to his birthday guests: "I am so tired of you talking." Indeed, he says what is on the mind of the audience who feel cheated by a counterfeiter.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
We sometimes refer to children as our future. But what do children think about their own future? That's the question asked to school children by a radio journalist named Johnny traveling across the country. He is the soft-spoken protagonist in write-director Mike Mills's marvelous new film "C'mon C'mon" (USA 2021 | 108 min.). While the youngsters give some insightful answers to the question, the film's real focal point is to portray the tender relationship Johnny develops with his 9-year-old nephew. It provokes us to reflect on how we adults communicate with children and demand us to pay attention to their future. There is no doubt that this film is a front-runner in the upcoming award season.
Even though Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good listener and superb at work as a radio journalist, his personal life isn't going great as a middle-aged man. He has not talked to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) since their mom died. On the one-year anniversary of their mom's death, he finally calls Viv from his Detroit hotel room and finds out that Viv is in a chaotic situation. Viv has to go to Oakland to take care of her bipolar ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) and she needs somebody to babysit her 9-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman). Without hesitation, Johnny volunteers to come down to Los Angeles to take care of Jesse for a few days.
Knowing nothing about parenting, Johnny underestimated what he is getting himself into. The inquisitive and observant Jesse begins to test his uncle's parenting skills. But with genuine love and affection, they soon grow closer to each other. In a little over a week, they build a solid bond when Johnny takes Jesse to New York City and New Orleans to continue his work interviewing youngsters.
The dynamic and delicate exchanges between Johnny and Jesse are irresistibly charming and fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix perfectly plays a gentle soul who wants to dedicate his work to be the voice of young people yet struggles to find the right tone to communicate with his young nephew. Woody Norman is exceptionally natural and mesmerizing in conveying the young Jesse's lovely spirit and creative mind. The writer-director Mike Mills makes a lyrical sonata with the duo, hitting on perfect notes on every heartwarming beat.
That doesn't mean that their time together is always happy and delightful. There is yelling and screaming, as well as frustration and disappointment. But the film wants to make a point that it's perfectly okay and normal to be that way. It's a lesson that Johnny has a chance to teach Jesse, and a lesson he gets to learn for himself. When it comes to relationships, the most important thing is to connect with each other and try to listen to and understand each other while going through the ups and downs together. It's a ritual that might take a life-time to accustom, and the film profoundly delivers it with a big heart.
Thursday, November 11, 2021
No matter where you grow up, your childhood memories stick with you forever. And most likely they are nostalgic and endearing, and you would be eager to share with others. The acclaimed actor-writer-director Kenneth Branagh charmingly shares his childhood stories in "Belfast" (UK 2021 | 98 min.), the city in Northern Ireland where he grew up during the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. Gorgeously shot in black and white, the film is a heartfelt tribute to the people in his childhood who have left, stayed, and been lost in Belfast since the '60s.
The film's story unfolds through the eyes of a happy 9-year-old boy Buddy (Jude Hill) who plays on the streets in a close-knit neighborhood of both Catholics and Protestants. Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) are raised in a working-class family with their loving mom Ma (Caitriona Balfe), his witty grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), while his dad Pa (Jamie Dornan) comes home every two weeks from his job in England.
Buddy's sunny and carefree childhood is shattered on August 15, 1969, when a mob of Protestants come to the neighborhood and torch some homes of the Catholics. Buddy's home is unharmed because his family is Protestant and not the target. The harmonic and blissful neighborhood is destroyed. This is too much for a 9-year-old's mind to wrap around and to figure out the reasons for the unrest that requires the military to be brought in to keep the order. Plus, he already has something in his young mind—he wants to win over the heart of a girl at school, who happens to be Catholic.
Despite the turbulent social and economic environment and his parents' hardship in dealing with the government's taxation, Buddy's day-to-day life is full of joy, happiness, wonder, and mischief, as he is told repeatedly, "Be good, and if you can't be good, be careful!"
With the terrific center performance from the adorable 10-year-old Jude Hill who was cast out of more than 300 child actors, the director Kenneth Branagh beautifully shares his bittersweet childhood memory during a trying period. It's certainly complicated in terms of politics, religion, and history for what happened in Northern Ireland during that time, but he tells his story from Buddy's perspective and focuses on the playful and enjoyable things that Buddy can comprehend. That makes most of the moments in the movie heartwarming and delightful. It inspires the audience to reminisce on with their own childhood experiences.
Almost every frame of the film is perfectly composed in gorgeous black and white (cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos) and perfectly captures the timeless moments in Buddy's memory. It also gleefully shows in color for the American movies and stage performances that Buddy and his family attend, giving us a glimpse of how they influenced the director's career since an early age.
Kenneth Branagh certainly didn't take the advice that Granny gave when Buddy left Belfast with his family: "Now go, don't look back." How can he not look back and splendidly share what he remembered?