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Belfast

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mostly shot in black and white (cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos does some award worthy work here) and written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” is the semi-autobiographical story of Branagh’s childhood set in Belfast, Ireland 1969 during a series of mounting attacks on Catholic families by Protestant gangs.

We see this through the eyes of a young boy named Buddy, played in memorable fashion by Jude Hill. Hill does for this movie what Roman Griffin Davis did for “Jojo Rabbit”. Buddy is a fairly happy child who enjoys spending time with his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). He also has a crush on a girl at school, goes to church and prays that God will make him a famous soccer player and loves to go to the cinema. In the background we see the unrest in this neighborhood and the pressure to pick a side that eventually forces Buddy’s parents to make a life altering decision regarding their future in Belfast.  

Other than the fantastically warm performances from the entire cast, “Belfast” is enjoyable due to its levity throughout. The story of a family who must choose whether or not to leave their home set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland riots, shockingly plays out as pretty standard. It’s the continuous moments of charm from the children’s coming of age conversations, to the grandparent’s playful banter and words of wisdom, making this film feel nostalgic, that creates a strong heartbeat for “Belfast”. This also seems to be a love letter to the American cinema, and the music of Van Morrison…for better or for worse.

Final Thought: “Belfast” is a film which has had a ton of Oscar buzz around it. And because of that, my expectations going in where set at a relatively high level. And while it’s extremely charming and had me caring about this particular family, I wouldn’t regard this as one of the best films of 2021. There really isn’t much more to say about this film, which sounds like a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily. It is simplistically enjoyable, just not wildly memorable.

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Spencer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beginning with a screen text which reads “A fable from a true tragedy”, visionary director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Princess Diana, as she attempts to break free from a world that at first glance could be mistaken for a fairytale.

During a three-day fictional Christmas gathering with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in England, we follow Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) during the final days of her marriage; though the film is much more a haunting foreshadowing of her death.

Kristen Stewart should be the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Let’s make that clear. She is made to look like Diana and as an American actress, her British accent is quite impressive. That said, after only a bit of time spent watching her, it begins to hardly matter how closely she embodies the princess. It’s almost irrelevant, as Stewart creates a character all her own, not so much doing an impression, but an interpretation, giving a very Meryl Streep level performance.

Alongside Stewart’s performance, “Spencer” as a film should very much be a part of the “best of” conversations, as it is clearly one of the best movies of 2021, due very much to Larrain’s direction, in conjunction with a solid script and an unsettling score.

“Spencer” portrays a woman at the end of a loveless marriage, surrounded by the most powerful family in the world, hopelessly marching towards the gallows, accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood orchestral score which swings back and forth between avant-garde jazz and classical, a decision which wonderfully complements a woman who famously stood in between two worlds.

The script written by Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) is simply marvelous. At one point Diana describes her situation as something akin to getting her limbs ripped off one by one, as those doing the ripping comment on how much she struggles. I can’t remember the last time I applauded a writer for being this on the nose with their dialogue, but it does work extremely well.

Final Thought: I remember coming out of “Jackie” and feeling more or less empty about the entire film. So, my fear going into “Spencer” was that it would be a movie made only for the monarchy obsessed. For those who had read every book, heard every podcast and binge-watched “The Crown”. But credit to Larrain’s vision, as he gives us something different, more surreal and far less narrative driven. The camera floats alongside Diana as she ventures outside on her own, almost getting lost amongst the seemingly never-ending world around her. And inside the estate Larrain creates a very claustrophobic feel, as the walls of opulence close in on the princess; establishing this as a fully immersive Diana experience. But also layered, because as much of a movie about Diana as “Spencer” is, it very much attempts to be a film about women trapped under the weight of the patriarchy. For as we root for Diana’s rejection of this life, Larrain quietly but consistently reminds us all about how these fairytales tend to end. 

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