Lion

Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Luke Davies


When I saw Lion I thought of it as the quintessential ‘movie your mum will love’. It is heartrending film with a happy ending, it’s based on a true story, and it contains emotionally powerful moments that will open the floodgates for many viewers. Oftentimes tearjerkers can be rather manipulative, preying on the audience’s sentimentality and eschewing the kind of honesty and insight that makes for great storytelling. Telling an audience to feel sad for a little boy who is alone and lost and far away from home is easy. Allowing us to understand and feel the depth of that boy’s fear, despair and confusion both as a child and as an adult, the enormity and impossibility of the task facing him, and the ambivalent pain and guilt he feels as he goes behind his adoptive parents’ backs to try and find his home and family, that is much more difficult and much more rewarding.

The first half of the film follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who follows his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a job and is separated from him when he falls asleep on a train that he is unable to exit. When the train reaches its destination in Calcutta days later, Saroo finds himself lost in a strange city where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language, and is unable to find a way back home. After months of struggling through hunger, poverty and nefarious characters with sinister intentions, Saroo ends up in an orphanage and before long is adopted by a generous and loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Years later, when Saroo has grown up to become Dev Patel (star of the film’s spiritual sister Slumdog Millionaire), a party with his college classmates triggers a remembrance of his childhood and a longing to reconnect with his roots. Thus he embarks on a quest to search for his hometown and find his mother, brother and sister.

The film shows great patience in telling its story, opting to follow the young Saroo throughout its first half, trusting the audience not to lose interest before the first English word is spoken or the first recognisable, bankable star enters the plot. I’m glad that’s the approach they chose because this first half is easily the most compelling part of the film. One reason for this is Davis’ direction, where he adopts a Spielbergian child’s-eye-view to emphasise Saroo’s smallness and sense of feeling lost. Another is the performance of newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young boy, whose expressive face and childish energy allowed him to convey a wealth of emotions, even in scenes where he doesn’t speak a word, and to carry the entire film almost completely by himself (between Pawar, Jacob Tremblay and Millie Bobby Brown, it seems that child actors today are much better than they used to be). With all due respect to Patel, his performance would not have been half as affective if Pawar hadn’t been there to lay the groundwork for him.

The second half is when the plot really kicks off, as the now grown up Saroo becomes determined to find his home. While the scenes of him staring intently at Google Earth aren’t exactly what one might call cinematic, I found that I was emotionally invested enough by this point that I wanted to see where his search would lead him. It is during this portion of the plot that the film is able to raise some truly compelling questions. Questions not only concerning how Saroo can find his family, but also about whether he should. His adoptive parents have after all given him everything from unconditional love to a bright future. When Saroo makes the decision to search for his home he also makes the decision to keep it a secret from them, fearing that his pursuit would be regarded as a rejection of their love and generosity. The emotional payoff for this conflict comes in a remarkable scene where Sue, in a moment of profound vulnerability, explains to Saroo the exact reason why she and David decided to adopt him. Kidman, no doubt drawing from her own experiences as an adoptive mother, earns her Oscar nomination in this scene.

Lion is a thoroughly moving and sincere film. It can be sentimental, but only when it has earned the right to be. It is a film about identity and belonging and the estrangement that comes with not knowing who we are. Even with a family whom he loves, a place he can call home and a life of infinite possibilities, Saroo is still lost and it tears him up inside. So great is his anguish that he is ready to give up on his promising future as a hotel manager and his caring, supportive girlfriend Lucy (played by a largely underused Rooney Mara) in pursuit of the life he lost. The thought of the mother who stays up at night crying out for him and the brother who is tormented by the act of leaving him alone on that fateful night is more than he can bear. There is a stunning human story being told here and one would have to be inhuman not to be touched by it.

★★★★

Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler


American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

★★★★★

Carol

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Phyllis Nagy


This is a film about love. To simply label it as a ‘gay’ film does not do it justice. Yes, the central romance of this film is between two women but in truth they could be anyone. This is a film about two souls who find each other against all odds and fall in love. Their love is universal and it is absolute. The theme of homosexuality and the social attitudes towards it do play significant parts but, to me at least, they weren’t the focus. The driving force of this film was the bond that these two women shared; it was their passion and their intimacy. Unlike many of the mainstream films you might see this day there is no titillation or exploitation to be found in this union. This is a romance that Douglas Sirk would be proud of. It is a tender tale of forbidden love in a world of suppression and oppression. There is great passion in Carol but also a profound sadness as the relationship these women share brings them both so much happiness and pain all at once. Few films are as sensitive or as moving.

The film opens with a fitting homage to Brief Encounter, depicting an unheard conversation between the two leads with a clear significance that won’t be revealed until we’ve seen what came before. We find out that Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a woman from a privileged background trapped in a loveless marriage to her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meanwhile is a meek, timid girl working in a Manhattan department store but who dreams of living a more fulfilling life. A chance encounter between them leads to a friendship that gradually blossoms into a romance. This union becomes threatened by Harge however as he shows his determination to keep Carol in his grasp by any means necessary. As the love between Carol and Therese grows stronger the forces that threaten to keep them apart become more dangerous and so both women must question how much they are willing to endure for the sake of love.

That the film was able to depict such a touching and affectionate portrayal of the romance that these women share is in large part due to the actresses playing them. Blanchett delivers a sublime performance as the alluring and seductive Carol. This character exudes of class and confidence but conceals a hidden vulnerability that comes to light as Harge’s threats become more severe. There is an acute tragedy to this character who knows who she is and what she wants but cannot have it for fear of losing everything she holds dear. Mara gives a less showy but equally stirring performance as the shy, unassertive Therese. Through her relationship with Carol she experiences a sexual awakening as she discovers a side of herself that she never knew, or perhaps knew on some level all too well, was there. By falling in love with Carol she finds a strength and an independent will within herself that carries her forward even as they stand to lose each other. Between them they deliver two of the most affective performances of the year as they portray a romance that is both moving and heartbreaking.

The beauty of this film comes not only from Blanchett and Mara but also from Haynes’ direction. In his recreation of the 1950s setting he captures a mood that is both melancholy and mystical. There is a real exquisiteness to the look of this film with its gorgeous colours and transcendent lighting but it seems somehow subdued. Although the cinematography is stylish and graceful there is something very controlled and exact about the way the shots are framed. The colours are warm but they lack the vibrancy of the cinema of this time, opting for a more muted palette. The film is set in the loud, lively city of New York and yet there is a marked stillness and quietness to the imagery. The fact that Therese herself is a photographer takes on a significance as the film depicts the world around her with the same sort of abstraction and focus found in photography. The effect is simply stunning and perfectly captures the tone of the film.

It isn’t often that a film gets made which is able to illustrate a sweeping romance such as this with such beauty, such feeling and such sensitivity. Every element is employed in just the right way to create a delicate and tender portrait of love, desire and passion. It sets this film at a time when such a union as this was considered immoral and taboo, highlighting the social attitudes and injustices that threaten to keep these two women apart. It is said that we do not choose who we fall in love with. Carol depicts that feeling by providing two individuals who in spite of the lives they have lived and what they have been raised to think and believe find intimacy and contentment in each other’s arms. Whatever trials and tribulations befall them, it is that bond which remains at the heart of the film and which makes it as touching and enthralling as it is.

★★★★★

Pan

Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Jason Fuchs


Whenever a film attempts to create a sequel/prequel/reboot of a franchise I know and love I tend to be pretty ambivalent about it. While I’m open to the prospect of someone bringing a new spin to an old story and old characters, I’m always afraid they’ll tarnish them in some way. As I’ve grown up I have come to accept that liberties are always going to be taken with the mythology of a story in order for it to be modernised and updated. Sometimes it works well (Star Trek, Mad Max: Fury Road) and sometimes it doesn’t (Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys). There are however some things so sacred and so inviolate that you simply don’t mess with them. The Force in Star Wars is a mystical, intangible energy field, not the product of microscopic life forms in the blood stream. Wonderland is a world that defies all forms of rationality and sense, not a realm of prophecies and civil wars. The Batsuit does not have fucking nipples. By failing to follow the pre-established rules and traditions of these franchises, these sequels/prequels/reboots effectively betray the stories that the originals were trying to tell. Pan tells the story of a boy called Peter that takes place in a world called Neverland, but very little of it resembles the universe or the story of J. M. Barrie’s novels.

This incarnation of Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan boy living in London during the Second World War. He lives in a world of oppression, injustice and fear until one fateful night when he is kidnapped by pirates on a flying ship. The ship sets course to Neverland where Peter is subjected under the rule of the pirate king Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and is forced to mine for fairy dust. After an encounter with Blackbeard that leads to the discovery of Peter’s ability to fly, Peter escapes the pirates with the help of fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). During his escape Peter learns of a prophecy that could lead to the truth about himself and his parents, a truth he seeks to uncover with the aid of Hook and the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

I don’t want to turn this review into an essay on what liberties this film took with the Peter Pan lore and why they don’t work because I think to do so might be to miss the point. There is certainly more than one way to tell a single story and not all the deviancies to the original source material are necessarily going to be bad just because they’re different. However, as I said earlier, there are some things you simply don’t mess with. The story of Peter Pan is first and foremost a story about growing up, Peter himself is a mischievous, cocky troublemaker and Neverland is a world of imagination and adventure. Barrie’s universe is and always has been open to variation and interpretation but the core ingredients have to be there if his story is to be conveyed. In Pan however the theme of growing up is not at all featured and Peter is a timid, whiny messiah who now has some great destiny that he must fulfil. I do think that Neverland itself is quite well done (with some grossly egregious missteps here and there) but it isn’t nearly enough to excuse the severe lack of regard held towards J. M. Barrie’s work. What aggravates me about this film is not only that it tried to change something that was already fun and wonderful to begin with but that what it offers instead is so weak and insipid in comparison.

Thus Pan is not only a bad film because it betrays the spirit of Barrie’s work, it’s also a bad film because it’s a bad film. The protagonist is about as bland and forgettable as a protagonist can get. The whole idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy foretelling Peter’s great destiny is the same cheap narrative trick we’ve seen in a hundred other films. The rules and laws of this universe are not adequately established or explained, leading to much confusion and many unanswered questions. And then some things are just plain silly. Between watching a dogfight between a flying pirate ship and WW2 fighter jets, seeing hundreds of pirates singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and witnessing a trampoline fight between Hook and a native, there were many instances when I had to stop and ask myself what the bloody hell I was watching. The forced inside jokes and winks to the audience (“We’ll always be friends Hook”) were also so obnoxious and in your face that I felt like I was watching Bojack Horseman’s stand up routine (“Get it? Do you get it? Do you understand the joke?”).

As frustrating as I found this film to watch there were some pleasantries I quite enjoyed. Neverland for one looks pretty stunning, with the exception of those monstrous CGI birds (you’ll know them when you see them). The setting is rich in colour and texture and many of the visuals are quite imaginative. Some aspects like the giant bubbles surrounding Neverland or the puffs of colourful smoke emitted by the pirates’ pistols may not be part of Barrie’s lore but I still thought they looked nice. Again some licence with the material is permissible when it comes to visually representing them and I thought Pan did an adequate job of illustrating Neverland as a world of imagination and wonder. I also liked the music composed by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. At the end of the day though the visuals and music cannot save this film from its shortcomings in story, character and sensation any more than it could with the Star Wars prequels.

Perhaps the most common defence for this film is that it was made for children and therefore doesn’t have to meet the standards of films made for grown ups, an argument that simply doesn’t hold water. Making a film for children is not a licence to be stupid, undistinguished or lazy. Bright colours and movement might be enough to keep younger children amused for a couple of hours but it isn’t enough for a film like this to stand the test of time. Children are smarter than some adults give them credit for and if a film actually offers something of substance they will respond to it. Disney’s Peter Pan as well as Barrie’s original novels have lasted because they both have timeless characters, incredible imagination, a compelling story and a profound moral for children to take away. Pan offers none of these things. In this day and age where studios like Pixar are able to produce wildly successful films that can challenge and entertain children and adults alike, Pan offers nothing of worth to its audience and will be forgotten once they’ve moved on to whatever comes next.