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Posts Tagged ‘Caitriona Balfe’

It seems like a long time since Kenneth Branagh was routinely being compared with Laurence Olivier, a somewhat unimaginative point-of-reference that Branagh probably got a bit sick of, despite having really brought it on himself (starring in and directing an adaptation of Henry V before his 30th birthday and all). These days he seems to have happily carved out his own niche, with a profile which is closer to that of someone like Albert Finney – a brilliant actor, happy to lend his thesping muscle to unashamedly mainstream and commercial projects. Then again, Branagh also has am impressive record as a director, sometimes of rather unexpected projects – although in his work for Disney (he was in charge of the first Thor and the live-action Cinderella) any distinctiveness Branagh-ness he brought to the films is quite well concealed.

Then again, Branagh seems to subscribe to a ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy when picking his projects, alternating big, well-remunerated fare with smaller, more distinctive films (the former helping to fund the latter). Branagh even seemed to acknowledge this himself in 1996’s In the Bleak Midwinter, a tale of a talented actor burnt out by too much vacuous Hollywood pap, who takes refuge in doing a tiny production of Hamlet (a film which immediately followed Branagh’s high-profile but not entirely successful version of Frankenstein).

The director now finds himself in the curious position of having had a completed film on the shelf for quite some time – a sequel to his outlandishly moustachioed performance as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, which has been waiting for the cinema market to recover and an appropriate release juncture to open up. In the meantime he has gone off and made a whole different film, which is clearly a ‘one for me’ project – indeed, perhaps the most personal film of his career.

The film is Belfast, which Branagh also wrote. After some vibrant images of the city as it appears today, the setting shifts back to August 1969, and the eruption of sectarian violence in a previously quiet street: Protestant rioters attempting to intimidate and drive out Catholic families. The incident is part of a series of events which results in the British army being deployed on the streets of the city and an increase in tension both between and within the different communities.

Largely oblivious to all this is Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy living in the neighbourhood with his family. Life is not exactly a rose garden for them – back taxes are a crushing burden even before the increase in violence, and Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) has to work in England to pay the bills – but they are surrounded by friends and family, deeply rooted in the city.

Much of the film is made up of vignettes and other incidents from Buddy’s life, and with detailing his relationship with his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). The tone is warm and affectionate, with plenty of humour – but the tensions in the city and the rise of the criminal gangs that would eventually declare themselves as loyalist paramilitaries are never far from the story.

I found Belfast to be an interesting and very likeable film, and quite engaging; if I had to point out a flaw in it, it’s that it feels like two quite different films which have been stitched together slightly awkwardly – there’s the autobiographical this-boy’s-life stuff, which is clearly drawn from Branagh’s own recollections (he himself turned nine in 1969) and has a tender, bitter-sweet quality to it, but also the virtually-obligatory story elements about the early years of the Troubles. This is by no means poorly done, but it does feel a bit rote in places. Most of the film is seen from Buddy’s perspective – many scenes feature frequent cutaways to Jude Hill, looking on in delight or bemusement – but some of the political discussions and confrontations function on a level where they don’t feel like they’ve been mediated by Buddy’s perceptions of them.

Of course, part of the message of the film is that the Troubles (a rather coy euphemism for what was, for many years, essentially a low-intensity civil war) is an inescapable part of the history of anyone living in Northern Ireland at the time. Branagh isn’t one of those people who makes a virtue of his Irishness, but this is because his family was one of the many who left Belfast to escape the violence; he grew up in England (where, one assumes, he learned to get rid of his accent rather quickly). Perhaps this film is an acknowledgement of heritage as much as anything else.

As I say, it does work better as a reminiscence about childhood. In this respect at least, it reminded me in some ways of Roma from a few years ago, although perhaps on a less-expansive scale. The main point of similarity, of course, is that both films are made in the same kind of lustrous black-and-white which is guaranteed to make virtually anything look a bit arty and significant. The closest thing to a distinctive artistic decision in the film is that when the family go to the cinema or theatre, whatever they’re watching appears in its original format – so High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are also in black and white, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC drench the screen with gorgeous technicolour. (When they watch a play it’s also in colour, for some reason.)

You could argue that the film is perhaps a little too prone to getting sentimental and indulging in whimsical Irish humour, but the performances are good enough to sell this – it’s also worth mentioning that, quite apart from the situation with the sectarian violence, the stresses and tensions within the family are treated quite unflinchingly, so this isn’t quite a wholly rose-tinted account of childhood. It certainly tends that way, though, and the audience at the screening I attended certainly seemed to appreciate it as such – perhaps the presence of a national treasure like the Dench in a warm family comedy-drama will serve to lure people into a film which does, in the end, serve as something of a reminder of a dark period in British history, and touches on not usually commercial topics. If this was Branagh’s intention it suggests a wiliness I would not usually have associated with him, but he is clearly a clever and talented man. Belfast should do nothing but bolster his reputation.

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We seem to be going through a period notable for an unusual number of a films supposedly based on true events, and also quite a few for which the paying customer certainly gets their money’s worth (and I’m not even talking about insanely long Argentinian art-house movies which no sane person would contemplate actually watching). These two trends come together for Emmerich’s Midway, and perhaps even more so for James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (also trading under the title Ford v Ferrari in some territories). These two films share something else, in that they both seem to be firmly aimed at an unreconstructedly male audience. Fighter pilots! Racing drivers! Can things get any more hetero-normative?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. I am guessing that Mangold has been allowed to indulge himself with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time more because his last film made over $600 million than on the strength of his track record as a director (which is generally pretty decent, albeit with the occasional significant wobble), but this is – for the most part – one of his more impressive movies.

It must be said that he takes his time setting up all the pieces, though. The film opens in the early 1960s, with the Ford Motor Company experiencing a significant drop in sales. Sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has the idea of making the brand more sexy and alluring by orchestrating a merger with the legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari, but the wily Italians outmanoeuvre the American company. In the end the decision is made to boost Ford’s profile by attempting to win the famous endurance race at Le Mans.

To run the new team they recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing driver and Le Mans winner forced to retire on health grounds. Shelby is a bit dubious about whether Ford fully understand just what it is they’re attempting to do, but this is nothing compared to the outright skepticism of the man Shelby brings onto the team as a driver and engineer: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a fiercely individualistic and contrary British racer.

Development of the new car goes reasonably well, but soon tensions become apparent within the project: Miles views it solely as a racing endeavour, and is his usual uncompromising self, while the suits in the company retain their usual attitude of corporate groupthink and treat it solely as a marketing exercise (which to some extent it is). Shelby finds himself caught in the middle of these clashing worldviews, attempting to reconcile them. And this is before they even go to France…

As noted, this is a film pitching for a certain demographic, concerning as it does motor racing and male friendship (the relationship between Shelby and Miles is at the centre of the film). The only significant female character is Miles’ wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, who to be fair does a good job with the material she’s been given. On the whole the film is quite successful in hitting the targets it sets for itself – the racing sequences are often genuinely thrilling, and the warmth between the two men certainly rings true.

In a sense it kind of reminds me of The Fighter, from 2010 (I qualify this because that’s a film I’ve never actually seen) – Bale was widely acclaimed for the very bold and committed performance he gave in that film, for which he himself gave credit to Mark Wahlberg: without a solid performance at the centre of the movie, Bale wouldn’t have been able to push his own turn quite as far as he did. So it is here as well: Matt Damon, as the world has come to know well, has developed into a very reliable and capable leading man, with impressive chops as both an actor and a movie star. He is on his usual good form here. Bale is also doing his thing to great effect – on this occasion he is almost off the leash as Ken Miles. Never before have I heard the Brummie accent deployed quite so forthrightly in a major studio picture, and Bale finds humour and pathos in his depiction of an immensely talented man who just hasn’t got it in him to play the game in the way he would need to in order to achieve the success he deserves.

Here we come to the crux of the film. You might expect this to turn out to be a fairly grisly 152 minute commercial for Ford Motors – the focus is very much on them, with Ferrari only really touched on despite their prominence in the international title of the film. However, the central conflict isn’t so much Ford against Ferrari as the Ford suits against the drivers and mechanics running the company’s racing team. This is not a very flattering portrayal of Ford management, with the possible exception of Iacocca (that said, for all his prominence in the advertising, Jon Bernthal doesn’t get a lot to do a the film goes on): there’s a real sense in which Ford executives are the bad guys in this film. The message of the film is that individual genius and eccentricity is good, and focus-grouped management-speak group-think is bad.

Well, that would be fine, but I do find the film a little disingenuous on this front. Why is this film called one thing in the UK and another in the US? I am guessing it is because Ford vs Ferrari tested badly with British audiences and has been changed to something perceived to be a bit more appealing. It’s all very well for the film to present itself as being all anti-corporate, but this is just the same as in all those films where stressed out city slickers discover the secret of true happiness is living a quiet bucolic existence out in the countryside. I don’t see many Hollywood studio executives or movie stars chucking it all in to live on a farm, and I imagine we won’t see many Hollywood studios taking the kind of bold risks and employing unpredictable, temperamental talents the way this film suggests motor companies should. It’s just a pose, but I should say the film-makers have cracked how to fake sincerity very convincingly.

And it is, I should stress, very entertaining stuff, though it feels like many of the best bits have ended up in the various trailers. This is a big, meaty movie, with some good performances, a smart script, and a good sense of time and place. My only real issue with the movie itself is that after being knockabout comedy-drama stuff for the vast majority of its running time, there’s an attempt at a shift in tone right at the very end that feels like it’s trying to edge this film into quality drama territory and potentially turn it into an awards contender. I’m not sure it pulls it off quite well enough, but then I’m not sure it really needs to do something like that anyway. There’s no shame in being a crowd-pleaser, and I think that’s what this will prove to be.

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It feels like a bit of a coincidence that Jodie Foster’s Money Monster should turn up on UK screens the week after A Hologram for the King, because these are both essentially star vehicles about businessmen having existential crises, with the subtext of the story pretty heavily informed by the aftermath of the financial crisis. Together with The Big Short, I make that three films on the topic this year alone. None of them are actually bad, and I did enjoy The Big Short very much, but why has it taken seven or eight years for Hollywood to get around to addressing this stuff? They were rather quicker off the mark when it came to the September the 11th bombings and the subsequent unpleasantnesses.

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Hey ho. Money Monster is certainly the most generic of the three films I’ve mentioned. George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a gonzo stock market commentator and financial tipster who fronts a (quite tacky) daily show on a (presumably fictitious) TV network. He is, as you can probably guess, a deeply flawed, cynical human being, thoughtless towards his co-workers (mainly his director, played by Julia Roberts), full of himself – in other words, ripe for a transformative experience.

And lo, one comes along with immaculate timing, as the show is hijacked by angry viewer Kyle (Jack O’Connell, another instance of that weird thing where someone off Hollyoaks or Emmerdale somehow manages to land a sizeable part in a proper movie). Kyle is not pleased, because having followed Lee’s advice scrupulously, a freak meltdown has wiped out his $60,000 life savings and he would like an explanation. Surmising, probably correctly, that people like him are not often listened to by wealthy financial players, Kyle sticks Lee in a suicide vest and threatens to blow him up unless chapter and verse on what went wrong is forthcoming…

You see what they’ve done there? They’ve come up with a way to have a film which has lots of potentially fruitful character stuff, and addresses important contemporary world issues, but is also built around a time-honoured dramatic staple – in this case, a hostage crisis. All the bits and trappings of this sort of story get wheeled out – the police turn up and start talking to each other using words like ‘perimeter’ and ‘clear shot’, people in bars notice what’s happening on the TV and gather round to watch, you know the drill. A bit of wrinkle this time round is that a lot of this peripheral stuff happens on a global scale – places like Iceland, South Africa, and Korea – and I initially assumed Foster was making a point about the interconnectedness of the modern world. It turns out to be something more specific to the plot, but I think this is still left implied.

Foster orchestrates the story very adroitly, keeping all her plates spinning – there’s the stuff in the studio, the police operation to resolve the situation, and another plotline about an executive (played by Caitriona Balfe) at the company where the freak meltdown occurred trying to discover exactly what happened and getting more than she bargained for. Just for a touch of flavour and to keep things from being too worthy, Foster introduces an element of black comedy into the story that I honestly hadn’t expected – various attempts to sort everything out, which you might expect to have some traction in this kind of film, spectacularly fail with darkly funny consequences.

And it’s all very solidly done – the actors are all on form, the genre elements are well-handled, and the social comment stuff is pertinent without feeling too preachy. To be honest, it kind of feels like the film cops out a bit on this aspect – rather than sticking with the idea that the financial system is inherent flawed and that sooner or later things will fall down and people will suffer as a result, Money Monster reveals that the mini-crash driving the plot has a rather different origin. But then this is a mainstream picture from a big studio, it was never going to be in agreement with the manifesto of Occupy.

The climax of the film strains credulity a bit, and it is perhaps a shame for some elements of the conclusion to be quite so predictable, but on the whole this is an entertaining film with just enough intellectual chewy bits to make you feel good about yourself for watching it. It’s unlikely to go down as a career highlight for any of the major talent involved, but it passes the time very agreeably.

 

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