Lion

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Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Garth Davis

Lion operates on behalf of non-profit organizations across the globe endeavoring to end the epidemic of child homelessness in developing nations. It is an earnest, emotionally charged exploration of a life less ordinary, simultaneously a delicate and powerful epic that should give hope to others who find themselves similarly mourning the disappearance of a loved one.

This is the story of Saroo Brierley who became separated from his biological mother in Khandwa when he boarded and fell asleep on an empty train that took him nearly a thousand miles across the Indian continent. After months of surviving on the streets of Kolkata — sleeping under anything that fended off downpours and dodging bearded kidnappers — Saroo was taken in by a shelter for lost and missing children before being moved into the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. Saroo’s fortunes changed when the Brierleys, a middle-class Australian family, took him under their wing and showed him a new life in Hobart, the capital city of the Aussie isle of Tasmania. Twenty-five years later — and this is the part where you might just assume Australian director Garth Davis’ feature debut has finally succumbed to Hollywood formula — mother and son would be reunited.

When you break it down into its three distinctive movements, Lion (adapted from Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, published in 2015) really explores two miraculous happenings. His entire adult life may be considered a miracle in itself, but one of the film’s greatest achievements is the way it develops its perspective. It’s a rocky road we start off on to be sure and the obstacles come one after another, at an overwhelming rate. Too young to realize his entire life has effectively changed over the course of a nap, Saroo (portrayed by Sunny Pawar in a breathtaking debut performance) wanders around with wide eyes and tussled hair, calling his brother’s name until he eventually doesn’t have the energy anymore and becomes silenced by his helplessness, adrift in a sea of simultaneous possibility and impossibility.

Lion moves into its second half gracefully as we meet the Brierleys, a kind-hearted couple whose intentions are unquestionably pure. David Wenham plays John and Nicole Kidman plays wife Sue. We want to love them just for being, let alone the fact they rescue Saroo from fates unknown. This family in no time at all burrows deeply into your heart. Kidman made a believer out of me as the loving mother. Sue makes it clear she and her husband picked the boy because they loved him, not out of some sense of guilt or obligation. The Brierleys later adopt a second child, the more volatile and aggressive Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav/Divian Ladwa) whose background isn’t elucidated but as we watch him engage in self-destructive acts as a youngster and continue to alienate himself from his new family as he matures, once more we are reminded that Saroo is one of the lucky ones.

At least he is given the chance to mature into a well-balanced, amiable young adult — though no amount of positive reinforcement can stop him feeling burdened by the mystery of his childhood. No amount of love from his adoptive parents can rid him of this kind of emotional baggage. Even ambitions for a career in hospitality/hotel management aren’t enough to make him feel confident about himself as a person. Dev Patel, in a potentially career best performance, portrays Saroo as a kite without its tether. Despite being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of campus life, he looks as lost as he was as a child fending for himself on the streets. It is in Lion‘s final third where we watch a carefully constructed façade starting to crumble, threatening the future he is considering sharing with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara).

Lion is a curio in the sense that it uses product placement as a significant plot device — Google Earth as Saroo’s second savior. The popular geobrowser became instrumental in his quest to (re)discover his roots and here it plays just as crucial a role in the narrative as any human being. Saroo is informed about the program at a party he attends while studying in Melbourne, where he opens up to Lucy and some other close friends about his past. That conversation proves catalytic for Saroo’s own slide into self-destruction as he begins shunning friends, coworkers and even his adoptive parents and begins obsessing to an unhealthy degree about retracing his steps. A friend attempts dissuasion by telling him it would take a lifetime to search through all of the train stations in India. Lucy challenges him to face the reality of making it back there only to find nothing.

Lion is at its weakest when it delves into this phase of self-exile, meanwhile Saroo’s interactions with Lucy feel collectively more like a dalliance than a serious thing. But the movie never reduces the emotional weight or contrives Saroo’s journey such that we struggle to believe what we’re being shown. The whole enterprise rings authentic, and the film saves the biggest gut-punch for last. It’s the kind of ending the cynical have been conditioned not to trust. Lion isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, nor should it be. This is an incredible true story that could empower thousands of others who are similarly bereaved to keep hope alive. Lion is a hugely life-affirming film you do not want to miss, especially if your faith in humanity has started to wane as of late.

4-0Recommendation: Exceptional, heartfelt performances complement a too-good-to-be-true story about determination, hope and familial love.  The film impresses even more considering it is Garth Davis’ first foray into feature filmmaking. Lion is profound, not so much because of the way it makes you feel but because this is what really happened. An enriching, inspiring cinematic experience. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you have any idea what it’s like, how every day my real brother screams my name?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Just a Quick Thought

'Joy of Man's Desiring' movie posterIt’s time for another Quick Thought, because I don’t know how else to make this announcement. I just want to make all of my readers aware that my contributions to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings indeed continue, although it has been a while since my last piece. I thought I would direct your attention over to that site, where you will find my latest contribution, a review of Canadian documentarian Denis Côté’s most recent offering The Joy of Man’s Desiring, best summarized by IMDb’s quasi-plot ‘summary:’

An open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest — a state of repose whose quality defies definition.

While I personally did not get a lot out of the watch, I can certainly vouch for the “absurdism” and the “abstraction,” as Joy uniquely bridges the gap between drama and documentary. But does an overload of static shots and half-mumbled dialogue make for a compelling watch though?

Find out here. 


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Photo credits: http://www.allocine.fr 

I Origins

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Release: Friday, July 18, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I would like to conduct some research and find out the origins of the eye-roll. I wonder who the first person to do it was, and how such a subtle gesture came to signify “Oh my god, I don’t believe this for a second.”

A science-based drama whose fictional elements are of a highly serendipitous nature, I Origins requires a radically high level of suspension of disbelief. And even if you are willing to put that effort in there’s a good chance you won’t be rewarded for your patience and — pardon the expression — good faith, as the story often times ditches emotional attachment in favor of trying to impress with biology jargon and fancy rhetoric.

The director of the curious sci-fi fantasy Another Earth ushers into cinemas another potentially profound conversation starter — “hey, did you know that eyes really are the windows to the soul? No, I’m not kidding. You should check out this movie called. . .” — but unfortunately you’d be left with just one “good” opening line and not much to back it up. If you dared venturing any further with what you know of the movie, you’d be sitting there trying to explain to your date, who now shifts pretty uncomfortably in their seat, why particular iris patterns probably means Charles Darwin was onto something.

In other words, all this profound shit can be romantic, but to a point.

If you somehow haven’t yet rolled your eyes in response to this overblown set-up to my review, then I’ve achieved something perhaps just as miraculous as the finding of a little girl in India, a special individual who just happens to possess the exact eyes Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) has been on the hunt for for years. He and his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling) have been working on the theory that the complexity of the human eye is a major indicator of evolution as opposed to intelligent design being the work of a superior being.

To counter all the cold, calculating world of science, Cahill then presents a French woman named Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) whom Ian happens upon at a party one cold evening. An enigma whose views on God and the afterlife are initially as wrapped in mystery as her skin is by layers of winter clothing, Sofi ultimately embodies that part of us which is concerned with a higher power. When the two fall into a deep and passionate love, flavors of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are hinted at as I Origins quickly goes off on a romantic tangent. Oddly enough, this won’t be the last time a comparison to modern fairytales can be easily made, though it might be the last positive one.

Sofi is a role with dual purposes. While serving as a refreshingly down-to-Earth religious individual, she’s also the emotional core to the film. That’s an achievement both accidental and through the direction of a man with big ideas. By design, Sofi’s a tragic character, our emotional attachment to whom we’ll pay dearly for roughly an hour into the affair. It’s purely through less assured writing we feel only something for her and barely register any empathy for any others. (Well, barring one particular event.) Neither Karen nor Ian have been blessed with much personality. Then again, the pair spend most of their waking hours in a lab under fluorescent lighting.

But really, these are minor issues when compared. What is a bigger deal is the fact that I Origins exudes confidence when it really shouldn’t. The smoke and mirrors tactic gets old in a hurry once we realize the stack of happenstance situations are merely byproducts of a clumsy, seemingly rushed script and not more evidence of God moving in mysterious ways.

The fact that Ian Gray encounters the child he needs to, where he needs to; his crazy billboard strategy — which is his desperate attempt to lure ‘the eyes’ to a central location to force this search to have even an ounce of realism — and the fact it even works at all, are all symptoms of a script that is jumping to conclusions too fast. We’re not sure if these moments are incidental, or if they have something to do with the (dis)connect between religion and science.

By the time the film arrives in India it’s too much set-up and not enough proof. There is something to be said for failed experiments. But what of the positive things are there to say? Unfortunately this time, there aren’t that many.

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2-5Recommendation: If you’re fancying something on the intriguing side, you could do much much worse than this semi-spiritual, semi-scientific approach to an age-old debate. Very chicken-and-the-egg type of argument that unfortunately loses its footing as it plods onward. Viewers who have seen Another Earth might be more attracted to the director’s sense of style and his dreamy visuals but anyone else might find themselves underwhelmed. Especially for those looking for a believably thought-provoking discussion.

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “What would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?”

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Watermark

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Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I’ve never had to pee so bad in a movie in all of my natural life. . . .

Not that I would miss much if I were to step out to find the bathroom. With hindsight, I could even take my time in my quest, perhaps stopping in to say hey to some people in an adjacent theater. I could mingle with other theatergoers, or distract and annoy them just for a few minutes — just enough time to allow me to forget what I myself had come to see.

This is the kind of light fare where I could be out goofing around like this for a solid 20 minutes and then be able to get right back to my seat, refocus, and get back into it without feeling the slightest bit confused or disoriented. I don’t want to call the subject matter on display trivial; it’s certainly anything but that. However, what documentaries lack — environmental documentaries, especially — in being able to take dramatic license, they tend to make up for with a strong human element, a perspective that engages from the get-go. It usually comes packaged in the form of interviews, a spoken narrative, a focus on groups of people changing over time, or any combination of all the above.

The problem with Watermark is that it lacks this human element. It quite literally and almost exclusively features dramatized shots of water captured in its many shapes, forms and quantities, with only but a few of these moments actually involving human interaction. The set-up makes for a pretty picture, but an emotionless story. In fact, the extensive opening shot, an admittedly powerful wide shot of a massive dam release in China, is a microcosm for the emotional journey about to be undertaken. If this one scene doesn’t catch interest, it’s likely that most of what comes next won’t, either. The question is posed — “how do we shape water, and how does water shape us?” — and this film from Jennifer Baichwal attempts to set out answering this by juxtaposing shots of bodies of water with mankind’s interaction with it. Too bad man doesn’t factor in more.

We are firstly introduced to a Mexican woman living near the Colorado River Delta, a harsh crop of land so dry it literally makes one regret the choice to buy popcorn (whoever buys popcorn for documentaries ought to be slapped, anyway); cracking slabs of brown plate-like dirt bemoan the likely many, many years of water’s absence. This scene is a beautiful contrast to the film’s deafening roar of an opening. In fact, there’s not a lot to disagree with relative to the film’s construction or the way it looks. Watermark is quite competent in both of those regards. But the face time we get with conflicted individuals such as the aforementioned woman feels all too brief and fleeting.

Beyond the arid delta plains, we travel far and wide to many a foreign and exotic location where relationships between humans and water are in varying degrees strained. Highlights include the windswept, almost alien world that is the Greenland Ice Sheet, where scientists are drilling kilometers deep into the ice to extract measurements. (Ice is really, really cool, by the way. I think ice is nice.) From there we visit India, and stop in during the annual Kumbh Mela bath in the Ganges River — a mass gathering of some 30 million people during which souls are cleansed and purified in the waters; we also visit one of the most massive structures on Earth — the Xiluodu Dam, a whopping 937-foot-tall arch dam, one piece in a larger project impacting the Jinsha River.

Watermark leads us away from these tense battlegrounds — where usually man wins and water loses — by trotting us out to the isolated regions of the Canadian Rocky watershed, a beautiful crop of North America where it’s feasible to go days without crossing another human being. Here, water is sparkling and looks drinkable. If you haven’t been on the verge of wetting yourself by now, this positively drool-worthy sequence probably will take care of you. Okay, so maybe it’s a lie that there’s no drama involved here. The drama stems from whether or not you can make it through this in one sitting. Whether you can clench those knees together for well over half an hour. Whether you can hold it. . . . .hold it. . .

. . . hold it. . .

You’ll have to forgive me for hardly taking a thing seriously at this point; Watermark disappointingly amounts to little more than a Discovery Channel special, and something seemingly more appropriately filed in the scientific record than packaged as a theatrical release. I blame my lack of focus on keeping things serious here because the film likewise did not seem enthused on talking about people; it seemed more interested in letting water do all of its talking. It wanted to dismiss me, so I feel compelled to dismiss it.

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2-5Recommendation: Jennifer Baichwal’s story and Edward Burtynsky’s cinematography combine to form a nature documentary that’s guilty of talking to itself and failing to leave an emotional impact. Its not intended to be a sensational movie nor is it meant to suggest that its time to panic about our lack of conservation of water just yet (though for some places it might be that time), and yet it’s difficult to believe that feeling as though you’re waking up from a nap come the end credits is the desired effect. It takes more than a lot of pretty pictures to tell a strong story.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 92 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Lunchbox

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Release: Friday, February 28, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

You know you have an indie film on your hands when you’re sitting there, reading a plot synopsis about the misplacement of a lunchbox.

Indeed, this oft-underappreciated everyday object becomes the focus of attention in a truly unique and grounded-in-reality drama involving two lost souls seeking companionship in a chaotic and often disillusioning world.

The busy port city of Mumbai, India is simultaneously the most populated city in the country and the fifth most populous city in the world, and, being considered India’s financial, commercial and entertainment hot spot, is also home to several of India’s major film and television studios. A sprawling network of high rise buildings that jut out proudly above the low-lying canopy of ramshackle communities, the bulging mecca that is Mumbai swells with potential for wealth, power, success.

In a society that places emphasis on hard work and dutiful attention to church and family, everything has structure and everything seems predetermined, calculated. This is chiefly the reason why The Lunchbox appeals — its determination to break from structure and willingness to abandon societally accepted norms. That may sound like a cliché, but with any luck, a little explanation is about to go a long way.

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is facing retirement and has only recently lost his wife. He now exists in a drearily repetitious cycle that he has allowed himself to succumb to. Elsewhere, the young Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is married but unsatisfied with the present state of the relationship, so she’s attempting something new: cooking meals that she knows will please her husband. She is surprised when her first attempt at spicing things up is met with total silence from the hubby. That’s because in a rare mix-up involving Mumbai’s famed ‘dabbawalas’ — the people responsible for transferring home-cooked meals from the home to a person’s place of employment and back again at the end of the day — her lunchbox is taken to someone else.

Instead of going to her increasingly detached husband, the delicious meal she prepared is ingested by a very pleasantly surprised Saajan. The seemingly minor error turns out to be the spark of a friendship between two people who would otherwise be total strangers. Over the course of presumably several weeks (possibly months) Saajan and Ila exchange a number of notes that become increasingly interesting, even intimate. She shares her concerns about her husband’s emotional distance while Saajan fills Ila in on his worrying about retirement and the mourning of his late wife.

This is first-time direction from Ritesh Batra and yet The Lunchbox plays out with the conviction of a seasoned filmmaker. Batra’s choice to keep the main cast limited to just two wounded souls helps focus the project immensely. Somehow, the handwritten notes the two share through the lunchbox also helps to slow down the pace of life in metropolitan India just a little. Almost every development that occurs along the way is something elemental, something basic that we can believe actually might occur given the circumstances. There’s hardly a scene in which the drama feels forced or invented for perhaps no purpose other than to awaken audience members who were falling asleep in their seats, the ones who were expecting more action to take place. Maybe expecting the lunchbox to explode, or start talking or something even more bizarre.

Indeed, there’s none of that. There’s a lack of a cartoonish superhero design on this lunchbox, which makes some sense considering the film prefers to have feet planted firmly in reality. None of this is to suggest this film is uneventful or free of drama, though. In fact the narrative is wrought with tension at times and comparatively more light-hearted and upbeat during others. The Lunchbox is a film that prefers to highlight the imperfection of humanity rather than over-simplifying or overdramatizing it.

That’s a tricky tightrope to walk, in case anyone was wondering.

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4-0Recommendation: A pleasant, reality-based drama centering on an atypical relationship that develops in a most atypical way, The Lunchbox has broad appeal. Possessing subtitles and originating from India does little to hinder the film’s extreme ease of accessibility. The performances are a delight and its subject matter, though not wholly original, is given the benefit of the doubt given the unique cultural material that is used to progress the story. I don’t know about any of you, but I want my lunches delivered to me while I’m at work! And I’m not talking Panda Express, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Dear Ila, things are never as bad as they seem.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com