Lion

lion-movie-poster

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?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

30-for-30: Survive and Advance

'Survive and Advance' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 17, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

Thrown off balance by Houston’s sudden switch to the zone defense, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, “the cardiac kids,” scrapped to find a last-second shot that would once again elevate them over their opponent and into the upper echelon of improbable victories. But there were seven seconds left on the clock and Houston was frustrating almost every available option. Finally, a dangerous cross-court pass to Dereck Whittenburg at the top of the key. He was 30 feet from the basket when the ball went up.

In hindsight, of course that shot was going to go in . . . well, in a way. The shot came up short but power forward Lorenzo Charles was there for the put-back to lift the sixth-seeded NC State over #1 Houston in one of the most iconic college basketball moments of the 20th Century. In the aftermath, college hoops was gifted one of the more amusing and simultaneously heartwarming sequences of video feed: head coach Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano running around on the court, looking for someone to embrace and finally grabbing some random fan before his players finally found him in the crowd. Seriously, what does a guy have to do to get a hug?!

You couldn’t find a Hollywood script that had an ending like this. And even if you could find someone who would write this Cinderella story, good luck casting the parts — Jimmy V in particular. If it’s not the sheer unlikelihood of the Wolfpack’s nine consecutive come-back victories, seven of which they were losing in the final minute of play, then surely it’s the enigmatic, emotional and beloved head coach that makes this story one for the ages. This is the kind of thaumaturgy sports fanatics would drag their better halves to a theater for to prove sports are something worth investing your time in.

Jonathan Hock, a nine-time Emmy Award-winning sports documentarian, weaves together two distinct but inextricably linked stories in a patchwork of emotion and nostalgia for an era that has long since passed. One story, set in the present, finds the members of the 1983 squad gathering for a reunion at a small restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they share and compare stories and memories of their collegiate careers. The other constructs a profile of Jimmy V, introducing him as an enigmatic, emotional and supremely confident young coach before integrating him further into the community after he boldly announces to his players on the first day that he will win the national championship.

But this is far more than a pep talk about the vitality of team synergy, a filmic letter of encouragement to future college prospects. In the process of forming the shape of the now iconic head coach Survive and Advance, a title that dually serves practical and philosophical purposes, also traces how Valvano embraced life challenges, namely his cancer diagnosis, post-college coaching. Part of that profile building is laced with painful reminders of how fleeting the moments that define not only players and coaches but people, ordinary people, really are. Valvano’s appearances at NC State 10 years after the win and at the 1993 ESPY Awards are masterfully placed within the context of the story.

Though the facade may look and feel familiar (this is not the first time a documentary crew has become invested in a miracle team, and that’s just within the realm of this sport), Survive and Advance is nonetheless one of the best that ESPN’s long-running series has to offer, manifesting as a classic underdog story whose ability to inspire transcends college athletics and for that matter, the world of competitive sport. It’s the essence of the personnel that make it great, but also difficult to write a review without waxing lyrical about the coaching, about the circumstances or the conviction Hock has in the notion that sports teams are family units.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: This particular documentary is one of this reviewer’s favorites, as it offers one of the most emotionally satisfying and at times devastating narratives available in the series. I doubt I’m talking to anyone else here but the college hoop fans but even if you hold a general curiosity about miraculous stories, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, if for no other reason than the chance to familiarize yourself with the wonderful human being that was Jim Valvano. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Every day, every single day, and in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.amazon.com; http://www.rollingstone.com

TBT: Miracle (2004)

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.56.25 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon our doorsteps. While most of the world’s eyes are going to be set on Sochi and their questionable accommodations, hopefully there will be a few to spare as we push forward into February on TBT. After the polls closed on Facebook in which I asked which theme would be most suitable for the month of February, my buddy Josh suggested I look back on films that dealt with the Olympics. Great call, since I both love sports stories (despite the cliches) and I absolutely am transfixed by anything Olympics-related. The amount of talent and competition on display is something we should all marvel at, even if we don’t understand a damn thing about curling; even if we don’t care much about men in tights spinning in circles on ice to music that sucks. The point is that, for a brief moment, the world seems to put all of its cat-fighting on hold for the sake of watching some truly compelling competitive drama in a variety of disciplines across a wide range of sports action. Behold, the month of February on TBT

Today’s food for thought: Miracle. 

tumblr_movvgbe5Jf1qcvx1go1_1280

Release: February 6, 2004

[Netflix]

Kurt Russell is Head Coach Herb Brooks. His team is an unlikely band of collegiate hockey players. The opponent is the dominant Soviet Union hockey team, who haven’t lost in 15 years. The stage is the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Miracle may not break free of the genre’s cliches, but let me know of a sports film that really and truly does. If you want to sit there and gripe about how many ways in which this film sticks to formula, you can go ahead and sit in the penalty box. Or be a benchwarmer, for Gavin O’Connor’s film is a sensational realization of a most absurd circumstance, one that helped transfer the bitterness of the ongoing Cold War onto the ice.

At the time of the XIII Olympic Games, anti-Communist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United States as the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly violent and unstable. This was reflected in the sea of signs and banners present at the many venues in Lake Placid, also evidenced in many shots throughout O’Connor’s film. The politics made the showdown between American collegiate athletes and the heavily favored Soviet juggernaut all the more epic. Since the Russians had dominated virtually all levels of men’s ice hockey since 1954, logic follows that Coach Brooks would bring top American talent to the Games in an attempt to match their skill and athleticism. Such was not the case.

As the iconic Coach Brooks, Russell delivers an impressive, intimidating performance. He makes sure that for the majority of the film, he won’t be your buddy. His dedication to whipping his players into shape through brutal training is put on display in this two-plus-hour sports drama. Instead of relying on naturally gifted players, he built up a team whose power would be generated from their conditioning and hard work. Under the leadership of this less-than-personable coach, life for Team U.S.A. was more akin to life in the military.

One moment in particular remains vivid: during a qualifying game for a spot in the Olympics, a few players on the bench are commenting on some of the girls in attendance. After the game, Coach ‘rewards’ the team’s distraction during gameplay by forcing them to do ice sprints (later termed ‘Herbies’) for an unspecified amount of time — needless to say, this punishment lasted long enough to ensure they were the last people out of the building that night.

Coach Herb Brooks didn’t only invoke questions from his own players, but his unorthodox methods — an overhauled training schedule and his unwillingness to allow anyone other than himself select the final team roster — sparked serious concerns from the overseeing Olympic Committee from the outset. Miracle opens with an immediately engrossing discussion between Coach and the governing body as to how they might go about facing a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union squad. In a single scene we get the impression of a team leader endowed with supreme confidence. As the movie expands, we learn where such confidence is derived from.

Though this is that same story of a man haunted by his own personal shortcomings, using a deep pain to fuel his team’s future, it’s nonetheless inspiring, without ever going over-the-top. Given that we know the real-life outcome, the film’s a foregone conclusion in which beauty lies in the details. O’Connor sets a brilliant pace that guides us through all the requisite growing pains, the failures and the tiny window of success Coach Brooks managed to squeeze his team through. It’s a two hour film that is over in what feels like a few minutes. Rocketing towards an awesome final half hour of hockey action, in which almost no detail is spared — save for the excessive swearing and trash-talking that undoubtedly occurred — the other three-quarters of Miracle is equally moving, as we also learn of the personal challenges faced by Coach Brooks. Having to balance work with family life can never be an easy task, and because of the magnitude of his own ambition, it’s a miracle in itself the guy doesn’t wind up in a divorce.

Patricia Clarkson portrays Patty Brooks with a warm empathy that offers a welcomed change of pace from the cold machinations of a former player-turned-coach trying to do whatever it takes to drop the prefix ‘im-‘ from ‘impossible.’ Though he must often be away from family, Patty keeps Herb from disappearing completely into an obsessive state.

In many senses, O’Connor’s third directorial effort is a classic. Providing all the hallmarks of a biographical sports drama, it perhaps sets a new standard for inspirational. How one former University of Minnesota hockey coach managed to unite 20 players from different schools is one step. Taking them to the Olympics, quite another. And then going on to claim the gold medal? Scripts like that would ordinarily seem hokey if drafted for fictional purposes. Some moments in sports history are naturally born to produce winning films, and this belongs among the best of them.

5713_gal

4-5Recommendation: It took yours truly until this year to get to Miracle, which is pretty embarrassing. Sure, it’s a sports film through-and-through, but the underlying story, coupled with great performances, makes for a great movie for even the casual viewer. If you haven’t checked this film out yet, then no time is better than now, particularly as we head back to Russia for another fortnight of spirited competition. Tell me, where do you hail from, and who will you be rooting for this year?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Gravity

Gravity-2013-Movie-Poster

Release: Friday, October 4, 2013

[Theater]

Whatever you do, don’t let go. . .

You know, when those first trailers hit theaters circa late July, and the last image is of Sandra Bullock in a space suit doing some somersaults against a void punctuated by dots of light, my reaction — along with those of several other moviegoers at the time — was to just start snickering. That one scene really set itself up for parody. Not to mention, the situation seemed just hopeless, ostensibly impossible to conclude. . . happily, anyway.

In short, my first impression of Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men wasn’t likely the one he intended. However, my chuckling might be mostly blamed on what the trailers did. Make no mistake — the ones for this film are very, very good. But they do only show part of the real terror that you’re about to witness.

It would certainly seem that on the surface (I know, clever right?), Gravity is a very limited concept. A routine mission turns catastrophic from the unintended effects of a Russian-launched missile that destroys several satellites, and sets this particular crew on a collision course with a wall of space debris just above the Earth’s atmosphere. The crew must find a way to survive — however many of them that may be, and however ridiculous the odds are. That is simply the story we’re given. You could describe the film in one breath.

Good thing you’re only going to have that one breath for the endurance of this 90-minute stress test. The premise may be simplistic, but therein lies both the genius and the reward associated with Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller effort. The most basic of situations, flaws, or missteps that we take (and take for granted) here on earth, under the influence of gravity, instead have dramatic and devastating effects and consequences in space.

From the moment the opening shot is established, be prepared to feel weightless and for your stomach to be in knots from the dizzying heights you’re about to experience. Cuarón and his brilliant camera angles thrust you into the black emptiness surrounding our lonely planet, and similar to how J.J. Abrams managed to convince us that we were all floating in space with the Enterprise, he establishes time and place perfectly — which might sound silly considering that space is more or less stripped of any of the rules and regulations we like to govern our daily lives by on Earth.

Nevertheless, you’re there whether you like it or not, immediately drawn into the lives of these astronauts who are on a seemingly routine mission. We hear them going through procedures with the Command Center in Texas as they service the shuttle. George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski zips around in his spacewalk seat-thingy, ever eager to share the stories he’s acquired having spent many a year in the space program. Sandra Bullock’s medical engineer-turned-astronaut by contrast is a little more reserved and nervous on the job. She’s clearly not as accustomed to having the curvature of Earth as the view out her office/bedroom window. And it’s not like one can really blame her. The sheer scale of this film is more epic than any superhero film has pretended to be in recent years.

What does this film more favors than anything is the staggering attention to detail. From the lack of sound when the shuttle and space station get struck with the debris, to the lack of energy Bullock shows having run out of oxygen in her suit; from the way spits of flame react in zero gravity, to the way equipment rips apart like fine fabric — literally every possible consideration is accounted for here. (When you’re done picking up your jaw, try not to leave too much drool on the floor. Someone else is probably going to be sitting there later.)

Such precision applies to more than the tangibles, which, in a movie like this, are crucial in and of themselves. The acting on the part of Sandra Bullock is simply incredible. Her task in this movie is quite a difficult one. Shouldered with conveying the requisite terror and panic that our collective species is intended to feel in these extreme conditions, she also has a personal story to share, and her experience on this mission will entirely change her outlook on the rest of her life.

When fellow survivor Matt Kowalski asks her about her life on Earth — what she might be doing at this very moment otherwise — she explains she had a daughter. Her portrayal as Dr. Ryan Stone is an emotional tour de force for which Bullock should receive the highest of recognitions. (If there’s any justice in the world, she’ll earn Best Actress AND the film’s extraterrestrial elegance will earn Best Visual Effects.)

This is also not to say Clooney doesn’t get a word in edgeways, either. His ramblings are sources of relief when the tension in the air becomes almost unbearable; his timing is perfect. He’s not given the heavy lifting, that much is certain, but Clooney colors up a supporting character that might have fallen completely by the wayside considering what happens to our heroine here. Ed Harris also voices mission control for the very brief moments they are in contact with one another.  To me, that casting choice is a little funny since he has all of maybe five minutes of line-reading and is never seen. Still, its yet more evidence of the talent that gravitated towards this project. (Man, I really need to stop with the puns.)

Currently, this is the highest-scoring film I have seen this far in my young filmgoing career that wasn’t A) a documentary; B) an indie film with little-known actors in potential break-out roles; and C) not a historical film steeped in facts and statistics. All the same, it has received near-perfect ratings, and is likely to stand out as one of the most complete, immersive and thoroughly researched stories this year.

Oh, and it’s also not an animated film either. Those also tend to do extremely well considering the levels of creativity that are involved in their construction. Notable achievements such as Pixar’s Toy Story earn perfect marks because of their broad appeal (a G-rating helps) and the novelty of the world in which we are stolen away to. A world in which we do not want to leave. Well, here’s a film in which there’s a world we cannot wait to get back to.

Simply put, Gravity sets a new standard to which all coming sci-fi/space films will be and should be held. The director’s previous film, Children of Men, is widely regarded as a powerful and dystopian commentary on a not-too-distant future on Earth in which humans are no longer able to reproduce. But 2013 sees him offering up his magnum opus. Utilizing the most basic of plots and casting top-tier actors who may never have been better, Cuarón draws remarkable conclusions about the stubborn nature of human survival; the will to go on despite every adversity. It may sound a little hackneyed put that way, but with Cuarón’s vision, you can’t help but be grateful for his wanting us so invested in this new reality, this disconnect from humanity. This world that is at the same time without the world.

gravity-2

4-5Recommendation: If, like me, you chuckled at the previews for this, you need to go ahead and right your wrongs. I’m glad I did. Gravity might be the best film of the year.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 91 mins.  

Quoted: “How beautiful, the sun shining on the Ganges river. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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