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Review of FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS (2021) (DVD)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “I realized, I don’t need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn’t know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.

The idea for Singh’s debut feature film stemmed from a cousin’s sister who died because her husband wouldn’t take her to the hospital, thinking instead that she was possessed by a ghost. It was a clash of convictions that was personal for him and set up the basic premise of this drama. Set in a remote village in the Indian Himalayas, Fire in the Mountains tells the story of a family that struggles to get ahead. They run a home-stay for tourists, but it’s quite a hike from the village bus stop and taxi stand up the mountain to where their house stands—not just for the guests, but for Chandra (Vinamrata Rai), who has to carry her crippled son down the mountain and back up again to get medical care. It would be easier if there were a road, and she saves money to pay for it. Her husband objects. Dharam (Chandan Bisht) thinks the problem is an evil spirit that put a curse on the family, and they fight over where their money should go. Meanwhile, every day finds wheelchair-bound Prakash (Mayank Singh Jaira) dealing with local bullies, and the couple’s daughter Kanchan (Harshita Tiwari) is obsessed with making social media videos of herself singing, dancing, or posing—all of which her parents see as problematic.

The film generates more questions than answers. Could the boy be faking the extent of his disability? If so, why? What about those bullies? Why is it always a group instead of a single one? How do these bullies act compared to ones in the U.S.? Is the wife or the husband right about the way their money is spent, or are they both right or both misguided? What are the parents’ concerns about their daughter spending so much time on her phone? How is technology treated in the film? Does Singh seem to sympathize with the old way of life or the new? Voiceover “news” reports proudly proclaim that India is becoming a nuclear power, one of the “advanced” countries, but what viewers see onscreen is far from advanced. Does this gap exist in the U.S. as well? Does an “advanced” country have any responsibility to bring its people into a more advanced state? Or will there always be people living in remote situations? What about the belief in ghosts and evil spirits? How do your family members feel about such things? And what about family life and roles, or how hard or easy daily life might be?

Don’t look for a neat and tidy ending. Life is messy. And don’t expect a standard plot. Fire in the Mountain strives to capture images and scenes that suggest the drama of this family’s life. It’s a visceral film that all but invites you into the world of this family to imagine yourself in their position. Considering that Fire in the Mountain is the debut feature of a self-taught filmmaker, that’s especially impressive.

As of this posting, Amazon has it for 52 percent off: $9.52.

Entire family:  No (6th grade and older?)
Run time: 82 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Hindi Dolby 5.1 Surround
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link
Trailer
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and some violence)

Language:  6/10—A handful of f-bombs are thrown early in the film, but even that might spark conversation: is it more shocking to hear this word in a film or to read it?

Sex:  1/10—The daughter tries to emulate sexy poses she’s seen on social media

Violence:  4/10—There isn’t much violence, but what’s here could be considered extreme: an animal is sacrificed, a woman is beaten, and a boy is physically bullied

Adult situations:  4/10—There is brief drinking, smoking, and partying, intended to show a contrast between husband and wife

Takeaway: Singh’s first feature leaves you feeling enriched for having watched it, though some of the bigger unanswered questions might be unsettling to some

Review of THE LOST CITY (2022) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Adventure-comedy
Rated PG-13

Sandra Bullock is at her comic best when she plays a character that would seem more comfortable in a drama than a comedy—someone who gets swept up reluctantly in the narrative events, but learns something about herself and others in the process. Including how to lighten up a bit. She excels at being the equivalent of a vaudevillian “second banana,” who plays it tongue-in-cheek straight while the other person is more ostensibly funny. It happened that way when she played opposite Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal and opposite Melissa McCarthy in The Heat, and it works the same way in The Lost City as she reacts to Channing Tatum.

The 2022 adventure-comedy fared well at the box office and with most critics, with the Rotten Tomatoes bunch giving it a 79 percent “fresh” rating, while the audience score was 83 percent. That’s a pretty high ranking, considering that the screenplay itself is nothing really new—just a mash-up of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones/Allan Quartermain adventures.

You’ll recognize similarities in a number of scenes, as when a ruined car forces them into a jungle gully and bad guys start shooting at them. But mostly the influence is made obvious when the film opens and former academic-turned-romance-novelist Loretta Sage (Bullock) is imagining a scene with her long-haired dashing hero who’s humorously named Dash McMahon (Tatum). Because Tatum’s character, Alan Caprison, is a model who was hired for a previous book cover and ended up being even more a fan favorite as Dash than the author herself, he’s part of a tour to promote her new book, The Lost City of D. But his flamboyance annoys Loretta and a first-event fiasco leads her to withdraw from the tour.

As good as Tatum and Bullock are together, they’re almost upstaged by Daniel Radcliffe and Brad Pitt in supporting roles. Radcliffe plays Abigail (more cheeky naming) Fairfax, a billionaire who realizes Loretta’s latest book was based on research she did with her late husband. When she refuses Abby’s offer to join his expedition to recover the Crown of Fire, he chloroforms her and kidnaps her. And like any self-respecting romantic hero, Alan decides he has to save her, with a little help from a man he once took self-awareness and flexibility lessons from:  Jack Trainer (Pitt), a former Navy SEAL and CIA operative who meets him on the island and proceeds to grab the spotlight in hilarious fashion. If you enjoyed Pitt’s dramedic talents in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’re going to love how he manages to be more over-the-top yet still understated and deadpan as can be.

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Review of HOT SHOTS! and HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+ and B-
Comedy
Rated PG

With Maverick raking in close to $600 million in total gross and drawing praise from critics and viewers, many fans have started re-watching the original Top Gun. But if you’re also a fan of silly parodies, why stop there? You might as well add the Top Gun parody to your home video library. It’s available with the sequel (Hot Shots! Part Deux) on both domestic and imported Blu-rays.

Hot Shots! (1991) was the first parody Jim Abrahams directed without Jerry and David Zucker after the three parted ways following silly successes like Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Top Secret! As far as parodies go, you should be warned that none of the three found the same level of success as when they worked as a team. But there are still some laughs to be had. Many of the laughs here come from Lloyd Bridges’ performance as Admiral Tug Benson, who is hilariously clueless and never present, though he’s standing right there. Hot Shots! is mostly a takeoff on Top Gun, but other films that get spoofed include An Officer and a Gentleman, 9 1/2 weeks, Dances with Wolves, Superman, and The Fabulous Baker Boys. And Bridges plays a version of a character fans will recognize from Airplane!

Charlie Sheen does a pretty good job of deadpanning the leather-jacketed, bike-riding role Tom Cruise made famous, with Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) serving as his main fighter-pilot rival, Kent Gregory. The film follows Harley’s reluctant return to flying—reluctant because, like his father before him, he was responsible for another flier’s death. And things don’t bode well for his new partner, “Dead Meat” (William O’Leary). When things heat up “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” Harley and Kent are picked to join the mission to knock out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons factory, with secondary targets being an accordion factory and a mime school (one of the funnier lines from co-writers Pat Proft and Abrahams). Complicating matters? Harley’s fragile psychological state and an evildoer of the capitalist kind (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) who is trying to sabotage the planes for personal gain.

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Review of UNCHARTED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13

I’m a big fan of the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies, so I wanted Uncharted and its treasure hunt to have the same energy level and quality.

But it doesn’t. The writing isn’t as crisp, the plotting isn’t as complex-yet-understandable, and the whole film tonally just doesn’t feel as if the writers could agree on the level of tongue-in-cheekiness vs. serious adventure vs. video game style. Then there’s this nagging feeling that the stars aren’t having as much fun as they should be, all things considered. Tom Holland is engaging. Mark Wahlberg is engaging. But they feel separately engaging, and not consistently so.

When it hit theaters in 2022, Uncharted quickly became the fourth highest grossing film of 2022—which, given the mixed reviews, pretty much hints at how badly fans wanted to like this film in spite of what critics may have been saying.

I mean, when you cast Holland fresh off his latest Spider-Man success and pair his built-in naiveté and nice-guy affability with someone like Wahlberg and the world-weary cynicism he seems to drag behind him like a bag of complaints, you’d think something more fun would happen—or at least more than what the film provides.

You almost feel like the film is in trouble in the early going when the attempt to establish a backstory for Nate (Holland) feels a bit clumsy and confusing. So how is it that orphans Nate and brother Sam are somehow accomplished enough to try to steal a map from a Boston museum and can come and go as they please? And why, when the orphanage kicks Sam out and he leaves through a window, doesn’t brother Nate go with him if they’re legitimately a treasure-hunting team with that kind of capability? Whether Sam is using or protecting his brother, the sequence felt rushed and paint-by-numbers.

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Review of TOP SECRET! (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy
Rated PG (but more like PG-13)

In 1987, when I interviewed David Zucker—one of the trio responsible for inflicting non-stop gags on movie audiences in such zany satires as Airplane! and The Naked Gun— Zucker, brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams were basking in the success of Ruthless People. But they were also thinking a great deal about what made Airplane! a run(a)way success and wondering why Top Secret!and their short-lived Police Squad TV series weren’t as popular with audiences.

Cult favorite
“The problem with Top Secret! was that the story wasn’t strong enough, even though the jokes were probably funnier than Airplane! or Ruthless People, and many of the scenes were far more clever,” Zucker said.  “We were very much in tune with the jokes, but the characters weren’t very well-developed. We just used them to spout these jokes. The other thing is, it really wasn’t a readily identifiable concept.  The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll singer who goes to East Germany to fight what seem to be Nazis is kind of an esoteric concept. It was surrealism, and intended to be surrealistic”—which is why Top Secret!, though not a mainstream hit, has achieved a kind of cult status among comedy fans who relish the trio’s mind-boggling juxtapositions and the way the actors somehow manage to maintain deadpan faces as they deliver those deliciously funny lines. As Zucker explained, “With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they’re aware that somebody had to write this stuff.”

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Review of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES / DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! DOUBLE FEATURE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+
Mystery-Horror
Rated PG-13

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), are cult films—but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not suitable for family viewing. In the case of this double feature—available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber—there’s far less violence, sex, and jump-scares than in contemporary horror films (see the trailer). But these are definitely cult classics, which is to say that they’re not mainstream popular.

For me, a cult classic is defined by a string of “usuallys”:  Usually it’s a low-budget B-movie, one that courts in-your-face difference and has an air of scandal or controversy about it, often with acting and a script that make you wonder if it’s unintentionally bad or bad for the purpose of being campy. Rarely is a cult film deadly serious, but most of the time there’s a “weird” factor. In part they’re also defined by their audiences, who celebrate “getting” the film when others don’t, and whose embrace can be exuberant, if not obsessive.

When it was first released, Dr. Phibes nudged viewers toward a cult film mindset just by featuring Vincent Price, who had built up a following as the star of campy director Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories. Price’s silky villainous voice and stage-actor mannerisms in those films had already earned him cult status—something that would continue throughout his career, whether he was featured in The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes and the beach-party film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, embraced by Tim Burton for two films (Vincent and Edward Scissorhands), enlisted by Michael Jackson (“Thriller” song/video) and Alice Cooper for musical gigs, celebrated in song by Deep Purple and ZZ Top,or parodied on The Simpsons and SNL.

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Review of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Well, it’s out: Spider-Man’s identity and the film that almost wasn’t, now available on home video.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) almost didn’t happen because of corporate greed, but ironically ended up making more money than ever for Sony and Marvel-Disney, who couldn’t come to an agreement over future Spider-Man movies. Fan backlash sent them back to the negotiating table, and the resulting sequel to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home became the highest grossing Spider-Man film and sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

No Way Home also got the highest ratings from critics and fans on Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 percent of critics and 98 percent of audience members loving it—better, even, than fan favorite Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Doc Oc.

See? Good things happen when you play nice and listen to fans. But it’s next to impossible to keep a secret from them. Word leaked that somehow previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would be involved.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers had taken inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life, where a wish provided the basis for the plot and a domino chain of revelations. Far from Home ended with Spider-Man’s identity exposed and reputation destroyed. The writers decided to have him do what any young and still immature adult would do: wish it away. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his magic to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity so things can return to normal. But because he keeps tinkering with the spell by adding people he wants to still remember him—girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—the spell goes awry. The multiverse breals open, and visitors good and bad enter his universe.

McKenna and Sommers wrote the screenplay before Maguire and Garfield even agreed to participate. But their wishful thinking paid off. Fans have debated who’s the best, as they have with Bond actors. Dropping all three into the same film was pure genius—and it’s not just fan-candy or a curtain-call film. There’s actual chemistry among the three, and it’s fun seeing them not only work together as superheroes and compare powers, but also reference their own films.

There’s consistency, too, because Jon Watts—who directed the first two films starring Holland—is also behind the camera for this one. The light touch that’s been a part of his sensibilities is here in triplicate, and that’s good news for families. When the tone is light and there are moments that spark laughter, it tends to balance the fantasy-adventure violence and traumatic moments, sending a message to young viewers that this is first and foremost a fun ride. Enjoy it. Although a beloved character does die and there’s some blood, stabbing, and serious punching, the “reunion” aspect of former villains and heroes entering the current Spider-Man universe takes a little off the edge of the violence.

No Way Home earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects, and apart from a sequence involving power lines in a forested area that looks very much like it was shot using miniatures, I can see why. The complicated Tetris-like shifting of the urban landscape completely suggests a universe that is fracturing, and the portals that lead from one universe to the next are rendered convincingly. The film’s budget was estimated to be a whopping $200 million, but the opening weekend box office alone was $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Just one question:  When a superhero fall, lands, or finds their footing again, is it deliberately campy that every single time they assume that low-crouch, one-hand-on-the-ground superhero pose? And how long will it take Disney to realize that they can build a fun theme-park attraction for fans if they have people take turns assuming the pose in front of a green screen so they can see themselves in a finished shot with background added?

Entire family:  No (age 8 and older?)
Run time:  148 min.
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments

Language:  2/10—A few of the characters use the “s” word and there might be a few other lesser profanities, but no f-bombs

Sex:  1/10—Chaste as can be, with a few kisses plus an instance where a man is shown from the torso-up saying “I’m butt-ass naked”

Violence:  6/10—Punching, pummeling, explosions, and superhero-villain battling, but not much blood except for one emotional scene

Adult situations:  2/10—Really, all Marvel Universe films are adult-world films that kids have been a part of since the comic books first appeared, but in this one there are no drugs and the only scene that has anything close to drinking is an end-credit scene set in a bar

Takeaway:  The ending sets up fourth film, but thus far nothing is in pre-production

Review of MARRY ME (2022) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+/B
Romantic comedy
Rated PG-13

If you and your family are suckers for feel-good romantic comedies that follow the rom-com formula to the first 10 digits of pi, you might think about adding Marry Me to your home video collection. This far-fetched but cute 2020 movie pairs a low-key junior high math teacher with a pop superstar that’s way out of his league. 

How far out?

Jennifer Lopez plays the sexy performer Kat Valdez, who is known and loved worldwide, while Owen Wilson is meek and nerdy math teacher Charlie Gilbert, the custodial single parent of a junior-high age daughter named Lou (Chloe Coleman). The idea of a romance between a celebrity and an average person no doubt stems from those happily-ever-after fairy tales about commoners marrying a prince . . . or beauty marrying a beast. Here Wilson is the common “beast,” and that’s not just me throwing shade. There are more than a few jokes in the film about the disparity in their looks and appeal.

Instead of a “meet cute” there’s a “marry cute.” Charlie reluctantly agrees to go to a Kat Valdez concert with his best friend/co-worker (Sarah Silverman) and daughter to prove he’s a cool dad. It’s the hottest ticket in town, as the whole world is talking about the hit song that Valdez made with Latinx heartthrob Bastian (Maluma). At this concert, in front of 5000 fans and 20 million people watching on TV, the couple will perform the song live and then get married onstage.

But as Parker hands Charlie her “Marry Me” sign to hold while she takes a few photos, everyone in the room begins gasping and looking at their phones. They’re looking at film of Bastian “canoodling” (we have to bring that word back!) with Valdez’s assistant. Ouch. Valdez not only stops the concert; she talks about breaking patterns and taking a leap of faith. Seeing Charlie in the first few rows with his “Marry Me” sign she declares, “Yes. I’ll marry . . . YOU.”

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Review of WEST SIDE STORY (2021) (4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Musical
Rated PG-13

In 1961, the average American couldn’t go to see a Broadway show. But they did go to movie theaters in droves, and West Side Story was a blockbuster of a movie that surprised audiences with gang members who danced and sang in an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in then-contemporary New York City and featuring two warring gangs instead of feuding families. The Robert Wise-directed film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

So why would anyone even consider remaking a film so lauded and beloved? On one of the 90 minutes of bonus features on this 4K/Blu-ray release, Spielberg provided an answer—several of them.

First, Spielberg said he was not remaking a film. He was making a second film version based on the 1957 Broadway play. He reasoned that if West Side Story has been performed all over the world with different casts, why couldn’t there be a second film version?

Second, he was personally motivated. Spielberg said West Side Story was the first Broadway music he was exposed to at age 10, and that he basically “commandeered” the album his parents had bought. He loved it, and it spawned in him a love of musicals. As a result, Spielberg said that all his life he’s wanted to make a musical version of West Side Story.

A third and most compelling reason didn’t come from Spielberg. It came from my college-age daughter, who, since the film’s release, has been re-watching it and playing the songs constantly. She and many of her friends liked the music and some of the dancing from the first film version, but they weren’t exactly crazy about the characters or the narrative.

Enter Spielberg, who pinpointed the biggest difference between his new film version and the original:  the 1961 film was a hybrid—part cinematic and part theatrical. He wanted to create a film that was more fully cinematic, and to do that he had to push it away from the theatrical and make it more realistic. He had to push it away from the moist-eyed spotlight solos sung in private or in closed spaces and open it up to where they were sung with active movements (and reactions) on the streets of New York. He also added small touches of realism throughout the film and created a narrative based on logic rather than the limitations of stage.

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Review of BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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