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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Blair Witch


Don't go into the woods; you'd think they'd have learned that by now.

Don’t go into the woods; you’d think they’d have learned that by now.

(2016) Horror (Lionsgate) James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

After a sixteen year absence in the franchise, we return to Burkittsville to further explore the secrets of the legendary Blair Witch in this follow-up to the original Blair Witch Project which somewhat tellingly ignores the events of Blair Witch 2: Book of Secrets. The filmmakers were so determined to keep this sequel a secret that they didn’t reveal the title of the film until the San Diego Comic Con, just two months before it was to be released. Like the original, that was genius marketing but would that translate to a good movie?

James Donahue (McCune), the little brother of the Project’s Heather, is in a bit of a tizzy. Some footage discovered in the woods near Burkittsville has yielded an image that might just be his long lost sister. With a trio of friends – Lisa (Hernandez), Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) in tow, he heads out to Maryland to talk to the two bloggers who found the footage – high-strung Lane (Robinson) and super-cool Talia (Curry). The bloggers agree to lead James and his filmmaking crew to the spot where the footage was found.

Of course, immediately they get lost. Their GPS becomes unreliable. Their drone begins to function erratically. The four filmmakers know very little about woodcraft and they bicker with the locals who are only slightly more experienced. Then some strange figures made of sticks start appearing in their camps and as things become more and more twisted, time itself becomes something that can’t be counted on.

As people start disappearing, it becomes clear that something malevolent is at work in the Maryland woods and that the mysterious building that doesn’t show up on Google Earth that appears suddenly out of the rain has something to do with it. But is this the home of the notorious Blair Witch or part of something even more sinister?

All the ingredients were here for something special; a talented up-and-coming horror director, a legendary franchise and a studio eager for a hit to re-launch that franchise. Certainly the way Lionsgate has handled the marketing for the film has been innovative and respectable. They’ve gone the minimal “less is more” path in order to generate interest while giving the project an air of mystery.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to the marketing. There’s a lot of inconsistency regarding the found footage trope; at times that’s what Wingard seems to be going for but then at others we get what is clearly standard filmmaking with all of the characters in camera view. It’s annoying as all get-out as the point of view changes constantly and without warning. There are also plenty of the kind of horror cliches that drive me bonkers about horror movies – namely a bunch of young people in a scary situation doing things rational human beings would never do. Of course, frightened people can do irrational things, but even people who are terrified might not necessarily do the things the kids do here.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some genuinely creepy moments. Wingard manages to generate an atmosphere that is ripe for some really spooky stuff and we occasionally get them. Kudos also go to the audio crew who generated an awful lot of legitimate scares solely with sound. Sound can be even scarier than sight upon occasion.

The acting is okay, albeit not stirring. The characters however are written mainly as archetypes rather than real people. James comes closest to being relatable but at times he can be a real schmuck. I will say that this could be the ultimate millennial horror – being lost in the woods with failing tech. Horrors!

The movie’s ending also purports to reveal some insight into the nature of the Blair Witch but as it’s meant to generate more questions than answers, it ends up being kind of maddening to say the least. We do at least get to find out why the characters at the end of the original were facing the corner. There is clearly room for a sequel, albeit one with any members of the Donahue family likely to be involved…unless there are cousins waiting to search for Heather and James.

REASONS TO GO: There are some freaky scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit of a yawner most of the time.
FAMILY VALUES:  The atmosphere is plenty spooky, there is a fair amount of profanity and some of the images are disturbing to say the least.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Filming was done in British Columbia rather than in the original Burkittsville, Maryland location in order to keep it quiet that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project was being filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The People Garden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Snowden