Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Assassin’s Creed

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Unbroken


I've got some good news and some bad news...

I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

(2014) True Life Drama (Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Louis McIntosh, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Jordan Patrick Smith, Spencer Lofranco, Stephen J. Douglas, Morgan Griffin. Directed by Angelina Jolie

Live doesn’t treat us all the same way. Some people it throws greater challenges to than others. While we often think of the things life hurls at ourselves personally as things that are enormous obstacles at least to us, there are people who, when we see what life has thrown at them we can all agree they had a really rough time of it.

Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II. Before that, he had been something of a hooligan as a child (Valleroy), picked on for his Italian heritage but convinced by his brother Pete (D’Leo) to try out for the track team. Louis is a strong runner and eventually makes the U.S. Olympic team and has the highest finish of any American in the 5,000 meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He’s expected to medal in 1940, but by then the world was otherwise occupied.

While out on a search and rescue mission, the plane he’s on basically falls apart, three of the four engines fail and the pilot is forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Three crewmen survive the crash – Pete (Gleeson), Mac (Wittrock) and Louis. The men are adrift for 47 days and are eventually picked up. Unfortunately, they are picked up by the Japanese navy.

Taken as prisoners of war, the men are separated and Louis is sent to a camp where the vicious Corporal Watanabe (Ishihari) is in charge. A petulant man used to wealth and privilege, he is seething that he couldn’t get an officer’s position and is instead relegated to duty he considers beneath him. He takes it out on Louis, an Olympic athlete who is already far more successful in his life than Watanabe, whom the prisoners have nicknamed the Bird, has been. Louis is often singled out for savage beatings and cruel punishments. What he endures is far more than most of us would be physically able to and survive, but Louis isn’t like most of us.

Jolie had been taken by the bestselling book based on Louis’ experiences and had been amazed to find out that Zamperini’s home was in sight of her own Southern California abode. The two became friends and Jolie was determined to make this movie about his life. Unfortunately, the real Zamperini passed away in 2014 well before the film was released, although he did live long enough to see a rough cut of the film in the hospital shortly before he passed away.

Jolie has a good eye as a director and her first film in that capacity, In the Land of Milk and Honey was an encouraging debut. There were some decisions here that she made that I don’t think worked in the film. For example, the first sequence in the movie is Louis and his crew on a bombing run. The scene highlights Jolie’s strengths as a director, keeping the camera inside the plane for the most part, giving us an idea of what it’s like to be in a tin tube being shot at while trying to complete a precision bombing run. The scene is very compelling and tense and yet Jolie chooses that moment to break away and do a flashback of Louis’ boyhood shenanigans. That’s all well and good but what she wound up doing was undercutting the audience’s connection to the scene. She would have been better served in this case to tell the story in a more linear fashion and skip the flashbacks but in her defense, flashbacks have become a much more common element in films over the past few years. Some films shouldn’t have them.

O’Connell has to carry the film and he does a credible job. He shows a great deal of potential (and has already gotten a couple of high-profile roles in upcoming movies largely due to his performance here) and while he didn’t knock it out of the park completely, he did get a solid base hit and I don’t doubt there are some good things to come from this young English actor.

The mostly-male supporting cast has some good young talent, including Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a sympathetic American officer in the P.O.W. camp. A lot of focus will be on Ishihara as Watanabe; the baby-faced young actor brings out the monster in Watanabe, giving him three dimensions when the tendency would be to make him less human. Making him more human really makes him more of a monster, in my opinion.

This has to be one of the bigger disappointments of 2014. I was really looking forward to this film and thought it might well be an Oscar contender, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of people hated on this movie which was why we got to this movie so late in the season, but it was a lot better than I’d heard it was, but still not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Zamperini was an extraordinary man and definitely deserved to have his story told. I just wish that the movie based on his life could have been a bit better.

REASONS TO GO: O’Connell does a fine job. Zamperini was an amazing gentleman deserving of a cinematic biography.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks aren’t as organic as they should have been. Too many platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence including scenes of intense brutality in the POW camp along with some brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ishihari is actually the Japanese pop star Miyavi but his iMDB credits list him under his given name. He actually had a very difficult time with some of the cruelties he had to perform and actually vomited on-set during one scene. The real Watanabe was unrepentant about his actions in a 1998 interview on the occasion of the Olympic torch run depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Railway Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blackthorn