FilmWatch Weekly: Branagh’s ‘Belfast,’ plus ‘Mayor Pete’ and Streaming Shorts

Marc Mohan at the movies: Branagh recalls his childhood during the Troubles; a political bio puts things in and leaves things out; some short streaming gems.

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From left: Judi Dench as “Granny,” Jude Hill as “Buddy” and Ciarán Hinds as “Pop” in director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” Photo: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Kenneth Branagh has never really been considered an auteur, in the same sense that he’s never been considered a Method actor. A skilled interpreter, in front of and behind the camera, of Shakespeare (and, I guess, Agatha Christie), sure; a competent craftsman willing to tackle franchise chores (Thor, Artemis Fowl, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), maybe. But a personal filmmaker? Not until now.

Belfast is Branagh’s cinematic memoir of his youth in the titular city, during the Troubles of the late 1960s. Shot in very pretty black-and-white, it stars impressive newcomer Jude Hill as the spirited, nine-year-old Buddy, the director’s juvenile correlative. In the film’s opening scene, Buddy’s play-fighting with friends on his street when a mob suddenly shows up, and he ends up using his fake shield to protect himself from real projectiles as he dashes to the safety of home. The neighborhood, one of the few integrated with Protestants and Catholics, becomes a siege-ground.

Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe) doesn’t see much point in remaining in Belfast, but his Pa (Jamie Dornan), who travels to England frequently for work, wants them to get out for their own good. Buddy is more concerned with the crush he’s developed on a classmate. The family’s rare respites from the local upheaval come on trips to the cinema to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (the only color scenes are the films-within-the-film). It’s all, to be honest, a little cliched, especially if you’ve seen superior, similar films such as John Boorman’s Hope and Glory or, more recently, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma.

The real saving grace of Belfast is the casting of Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s loving, bickering grandparents. Both are absolute treasures, and the colloquies between Buddy and his grandpa are some of the best moments in the movie. Hinds has an avuncular majesty that gives almost any dialogue he utters a thick veneer of profundity, and Dench, in a decidedly non-monarchical role, is as simply human and moving as ever.

This middlebrow, historical, coming-of-age, UK-accented, ensemble comedy-drama is a heaping slab of Oscar bait, and it’s been getting received as such. Branagh’s only previous directing nomination came with his first feature, Henry V, thirty years ago, but he’s well-positioned to change that. Dench and Hinds should be locks, as well as the cinematography. In other words, this will be a must-see for those who want to make educated guesses in their Oscar prediction pools.

For Branagh, it was surely a cathartic experience to revisit and reimagine his youth. And Belfast has many beautiful, poignant, amusing moments. But ultimately it suffers from its director’s inability or unwillingness to present a truly unfiltered look at its subject—namely, the heartbreaking decision to leave the place you’ve always called home because you just don’t recognize it anymore, and don’t imagine you ever will. Even though it’s Branagh’s most (first?) personal movie, he still keeps his distance. (Opens Thursday, November 11, at Cinema 21 and other area theaters.)

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FOR A BRIEF HALF-SECOND THERE, it seemed weirdly plausible that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would be elected President of the United States in 2020. Pete Buttigieg, the boyish, openly gay, multilingual Rhodes Scholar and Iraq War veteran was a long shot when he entered the race but became a media darling, appearing to be in many ways the polar opposite of the then-Current Resident of the White House.

Mayor Pete in “Mayor Pete.”

Mayor Pete is the behind-the-scenes campaign documentary that follows Buttigieg’s gradual, then meteoric, rise to prominence in the 2020 election cycle. It was made with the apparently complete acquiescence of the campaign, which is its greatest strength and biggest flaw. In contrast to the ostensibly candid, but very on-message sit-down interviews with Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, scenes of strategic meetings and debate prep offer a revealing glimpse into how the sausage of a political candidacy is made. (Campaign manager Lis Smith is not afraid to tell her boss when he’s screwing things up.)

The intimacy also allows director Jesse Moss (who co-directed last year’s Boys State) to capture the moment when, on the night of the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg, his staff, and the camera were briefly trapped in a malfunctioning elevator. One of his aides has the movie’s best line: “I was just imagining the headline: Buttegieg and others killed in tragic elevator accident.”

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The issue of Buttigieg’s gayness, and the impact that living a lie until his thirties had on his personality and his perspective, is explored in ways that seem revealing, but often dissolve into tropes. As a candidate, he never seemed to reveal his authentic, emotional self, and yet, as he says, what if his truly authentic self is someone who remains preternaturally calm during elevator crises and prefers to think things through rather than respond with zingers and personal attacks?

Being a quasi-official campaign documentary means that, while it covers Buttigieg’s response to the shooting death of a black man by a South Bend cop during the campaign, it does not delve into another aspect of criticism towards him: his work for the global consulting firm McKinsey, which has in the past rarely hesitated to take work from some pretty nefarious actors. Buttigieg alleged during the campaign that he was bound by a nondisclosure agreement, and that NDA must still be in effect, because the word “McKinsey” is never spoken once here. (Streaming via Amazon Prime.)

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ONE OF THE MANY ADVANTAGES of the growth in curated streaming services is the increased availability of short films, which too often in the past would screen at festivals and then vanish into the ether. Now, they can be seen on demand and in way that allows viewers to focus on a single filmmaker or theme. In addition to being a perfect choice for the cinephile with a half-hour window to fill, they can provide vivid reminders that fascinating work exists outside the commercially mandated stricture of the feature-length running time.

An image from Garrett Bradley’s “America.”

Filmmaker and artist Garrett Bradley earned a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination last year for Time, and was a recipient of the Northwest Film Center’s Cinema Unbound Award. The Criterion Channel is currently featuring a selection of four of Bradley’s earlier shorts, including 2017’s Alone, which presages Time in its portrait of a woman struggling with her decision to marry an incarcerated man. The most recent, and most poetic, title in the collection is 2019’s America, which incorporates footage from a recently rediscovered early silent film with an all-Black cast into a kaleidoscopic vision of an alternate history of American cinema. (Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.)

The work of director Jim Finn also frequently conjures alternate histories, albeit those inspired more by ideology than race. His 2006 experimental feature Interkosmos, for instance, imagines an expedition to Jupiter mounted by the East German space program in the 1970s. The streaming service OVID is presenting a large selection of his shorter works, many of which similarly poke at (mis)conceptions of leftist politics. Encounters with Your Inner Trostky Child and its sequel The Zinoviev Tube are mock 1980s-style self-help videos that offer surreal guidance to those attempting to break free of the “Prime Material Plane” of corporate capitalism. They’re trippy and funny and unique. (Currently streaming on OVID.TV)

The British filmmaker Joanna Hogg has been working for decades, but her biggest triumphs have come in recent years with 2019’s The Souvenir and its new sequel The Souvenir Part II (still waiting for a Portland opening on that one!). Both of those films star Honor Swinton Byrne and her mother, the now-iconic Tilda Swinton. The elder Swinton and Hogg go way back, in fact—all the way to Hogg’s 1986 film school thesis, the half-hour, inventive satire Caprice, currently streaming via the website Le Cinema Club, which offers a different short for free each week. (In other words, hurry if you want to catch this one—and you should.) In Caprice, a 26-year-old, Swinton (still being billed as Matilda Swinton!) plays a mousy fashion magazine addict who gets sucked into the pages of a new issue and discovers what’s behind those glossy images. Made even before Swinton’s artistic partnership with Derek Jarman (who reportedly gave Hogg her first Super-8 camera) came to fruition, this offers a look at both actor and director at a charming point where their mutual promise is readily evident. (Streaming, for now, at Le Cinema Club.)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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