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What is this movie trying to say? I ask without a desire to be
controversial or contrarian towards the vast ocean of critics and
filmgoers who loved this film. I'm aware of the craftsmanship involved
in a film like this, I'm aware of the feats it likely took to keep this
film tasteful and lord knows that to some, this movie is going to feel
like a satisfactory catharsis. In interviews director Peter Berg and
Mark Wahlberg have stated the film should be seen as a movie about a
city coming together to fight evil. "The more research I did, the more
I realized it really was an example of a community working together"
said Berg. But despite good intentions and diplomatic words (or lip
service depending on how close you are to this), at the end of the day
I still need to ask myself, what really, is the point here?
The main story of Patriots Day needs no retelling. I'm sure a lot of Americans are acutely aware of where they were on April 15, 2013; certainly every Bostonian is. The dramatic arc of the movie and part of what makes the movie so "tasteful" is it bends and weaves through the lives of different people intimately involved in the terrorist plot. Such people include Patrick Downes (O'Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Brosnahan), a young couple injured by the first explosion; Officer Sean Collier (Picking), the MIT policeman who was shot and killed in the line of duty; Chinese national Dun Meng (Yang) who was briefly held hostage by the bombers and Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (Simmons) who brought down the elder of the Tsarnaev brothers.
Then of course there's Mark Wahlberg who plays the very fictional and very chuckle-headed Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg); a Boston cop whose story, I think, is meant to serve as connective tissue. His character provides a very insidious discord; not only because his inclusion in everything from the bombing, to the shootout, to the final arrest is downright serendipitous, but because he pulls focus in order to rationalize vigilante justice. He waxes poetically about moral absolutes, gets in the face of investigative brass, jumps every preordained hoop that gets him closer to the bad guys and still has time to weep over the aftermath of the attack. Come to think of it, Wahlberg's not just connective tissue, he's the whole f***ing box and at some point in the film his mugging just stops becoming forgivable.
The other odious element of the film is the inclusion, exploration and exploitation of the Tsarnaev brothers played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze. They are introduced amid a flurry of intros in the first ten minutes - the score bellowing in minor keys as Tamerlan (Melikidze) watches ISIS videos while consuming Cheerios. Now while there's no inherent problem with heavily inferring these guys are, in fact the bad guys, the movie is supposedly intended to be "about Boston". So why include these characters at all? What insights can be gained about the grit and determination of Beantown from a pair of sad, pathetic, anti-social wannabe terrorists? Nothing - unless the goal of their inclusion is to exploit our fears and make them something more than a pair of sad, pathetic, anti-social wannabe terrorists.
To that end the film does a pretty fine job being a taut, story beat conscious piece of bluster that elevates what was in reality a messy, painstaking investigation into a simplistic fight between good vs. evil. Meanwhile the Tsarnaev clowns and to a lesser extent the elder's wife (Benoist) are all portrayed as the apex of storybook evil. The kind of evil that only loosely wears a human face. It's a tact that despite being easily digestible is immediately complicated when you consider the younger Tsarnaev is awaiting an appeal of his death sentence and the wife (whom the movie heavily implies knew everything), is still around and bracing for a new glut of death threats.
It's interesting to note that Patriots Day is the result of two separate scripts combined to make one big compromised movie. And while you can tell great pains were exercised in the service of this film, the end result still feels like a tug-o-war. There's the fictional composite lead and the true-to-life ensemble. There's the genre clichés artlessly retrofitted with the honest human elements. There's the story of hope in the face of terror, shadowed by an agenda that cheapens the whole ordeal. What's truly lost in the smoke, mirrors and Markie Mark chest beating is the actual story of Boston. A story that could have yielded a rich civic mosaic. Instead what we got was a movie that just reeks of opportunism.
I am not going to lie; I was sold on this film before I even walked
into the theater. Why
well why the hell not? While most denizens of
this year's January Graveyard crop have been ludicrously dour and
pitifully boring, Monster Trucks looked like it was going to lean into
its silly high-concept and provide enough stupid fun for all. Plus a
handful of such obvious marketing ploys have been sold to the public in
the past and have still managed to be good even if they were armed with
preposterous story elements.
Turns out I was partially right (though mostly wrong) about Monster Trucks. In this film's defense at least it has the presence of mind to steal from the best. Just switch the adorable alien from E.T. (1982) with an oil guzzling tentacled stress ball from beneath the surface of the earth, and Amblin Entertainment might just have cause to sue. But I suppose you could also replace Elliott with a characteristically blasé Lucas Till as our nominal human lead. Suddenly the whimsy has been halved, so I guess suing would just be kicking them while they're down. Am I supposed to be brooding or smoldering here?
Monster Trucks also has the presence of mind to include a rollicking hook to its second rate story. Our monster, Creech makes it a habit to hide in our leading man's scrap-heap pickup truck. A habit he gained while avoiding capture from a nefarious oil company looking to cover up any evidence of a looming eco-disaster. From that point forward it's a Ratatouille (2008)-type scenario where driver and monster work together, gleefully off-roading towards the film's inevitable conclusion. Along for the ride is the nerdy Meredith (Levy) whose, quite frankly, unbelievable infatuation with Tripp (Till) cajoles her to the junkyard in the middle of the night wearing knee-high bobby socks.
Yeah a lot about this movie makes no sense. Like why a geologist (Lennon) would be doing intelligence tests and experiments on captured monsters? How do our leads get out of answering for so much property damage? And why, oh why would Rob Lowe, Amy Ryan and Danny Glover agree to be in this movie?
Yet every time I ask myself these sorts of questions the movie wisely slides in some ridiculous CGI car stunt or some awkward corny joke. I'm then reminded of the spirit of this film. It's supposed to be silly, it's supposed to be goofy and while I'm not a fan of using "kids movie" in a pejorative sense, the pro-environmental message of the film is just enough for the film to squeak by on its merits.
Monster Trucks is not a great movie. It's not even a good movie and certainly not the movie it could or should have been. But it's still the movie we got, and what we ended up getting was a movie about a monster that lives inside a monster truck. No bull, it's as advertised just as it is on the box.
The scene feels remarkably familiar Dorothea (Bening), the matron and
saint of a Santa Barbara household circa 1979 leans in on her son Jamie
(Zumann) listening to "Fairytale in the Supermarket" by The Raincoats.
"They know they sound terrible right?" she says. Abbie (Gerwig),
Dorothea's avant-garde lodger interjects; "yeah, but it's like they
don't care. They got all this feeling but don't have the tools they
need to express it
it all comes out as passion." Dorothea fixates on
Abbie's intonation, like listening to language she's only now grasping.
She gets it...but then she doesn't.
Much like Abbie's defense of The Raincoats, Dorothea believes she has all the passion to be a proper mother, but she lacks the right tools to support a son who is growing older with each passing moment. She decides to enlist the help of two young women; Julie, Jamie's best friend and crush and Abbie a free spirit who was recently treated for cervical cancer. The only other man in the picture is William (Crudup) a well-meaning former hippie with a gift for mechanics and a passion for pottery. Between them all, the stalwart Dorothea hopes to quietly guide her son through his formative years which pit her depression era approach, to Jamie's recession era resentments. "Don't you need a man to raise another man?" asks Julie. "No I don't think you do." 20th Century Women starts with competing voice-overs and uses a collage approach to convey the surfaces of each character's inner life. The collages are stuffed to the brim with stills of 1930's gloom and 1960's turbulence all set to audio of proto-punk, Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech and "As Life Goes By" from Casablanca (1942). It's an awkward mix; one that creates an echo chamber of sorts.
That subtle discordance of people talking at and not to each other, runs through the first half of the film. Jamie's coming-of-age story, a volatile mix of stubborn familial resentment and unrequited love clobbers together with Dorothea's own midlife crisis. "I had Jamie when I was 40." Dorothea says; a fact that can help explain Dorothea's free-range parenting approach, but also helps explain why Jamie's sharp insights cut so deep. For a while there it always seems like its Jamie versus Dorothea, pulled apart by an ever widening generational gap.
Then, like responding to the blessing of a wartime parlay, the factions in this film begin to center and calm. It is during this truce that the film begins to really take off, presenting its characters with vibrancy and humanity while flying through a more nuanced story arc. Almost independently both Jamie and Dorothea learn their goals are one in the same and the differences they have are little compared to their mutual respect for time which presents itself in rainbow tinged tracking shots and subtle fast-forwards.
And at the center of 20th Century Women lies the affable Annette Bening who suitably captures the zeitgeist of a generation no longer with us. While most might pigeonhole Dorothea as a madcap eccentric or worse a passive pushover, Bening wisely lets the character's inner strength shine through. Dorothea is unabashedly a one of a kind lady. She invites strangers to dinner, invites herself to punk clubs, leaves early, and then comes back days later alone. She verves uncomfortably with post-sexual revolution mores yet she quietly takes frank conversations about menstruation in stride. She does all this because she knows that with every encounter, every meeting, every stranger there's a chance for exchange.
Of course 20th Century Women is not without its problems. While Bening, Gerwig and Fanning all do wonders in their roles, Zumann fails to endear the young Jamie to the audience in any meaningful way. Part of it is due to the part as it is written. The film is loosely based on the life of director Mike Mills thus Jamie at times feels more like an avatar than a real teenager. Additionally it's ironic that despite constant paraphrasing of feminist literature, 20th Century Women would struggle to pass the Bechdel Test. Our three women characters orbit Jamie's life and analyze his actions and motives like he's the center of their universe.
Yet, while the film uses the wider Women's Liberation movement as window dressing, allowing the external conflicts of the film to melt away to reveal honest internal pain was a stroke of genius. Genius enough to maybe be interpreted as a meta-text on standard storytelling practices being a form of patriarchal oppression. That however is a discussion for another day. 20th Century Women is an artfully rendered film with plenty to say about the passage of time, the commonality between the generation gaps and the unifying love of mother and son.
Don't say it; don't think it a piece of advice uttered and repeated
ad nauseum by the year's newest batch of disposable teens in this
year's newest disposable horror; The Bye Bye Man. Question: If I repeat
the words "don't think it, don't say it" as if it were a mantra, aren't
I still thinking about it? I, mean anyone who's been through a terrible
breakup will probably tell you when you say "don't think about it,"
your mind automatically wonders back to one who broke your heart. Also,
are the people cursed by this year's newest disposable apparition aware
that "bye-bye, man," is a fairly common turn of phrase? So does that
mean everyone who says that at any point in their life is affected by
the curse or only after they've discovered it exists? The Bye Bye Man
is the name of this year's newest disposable horror film apparition. He
appears when you say his name, his influence spreads with every
utterance and he can be challenged once you've become wise to his game.
So he's basically a hybrid of Freddy Krueger, the Candyman and the "It"
in It Follows (2014) only with a look and feel stolen from a Lab Rats
music video. Truth be told, the setup does have possibilities. A minor
character refers to him as a reaper so perhaps something salient could
have been said about the specter of death and how it can warp our
behavior. Or perhaps The Bye Bye Man could be a parable of forgotten
history. Another minor character makes the point that once you bury the
story, "It's like it never existed." The movie could have been an
exploration of mass hysteria, a project exploring groupthink, exploring
mental illness, exploring the never-ending march of time
It could have
explored a lot of things is what I'm saying.
But no The Bye Bye Man is essentially about a group of university students who stumble onto a haunted nightstand and barely grasp its implications. We get our macho jock (Laviscount), our pretty and popular female lead (Bonas), our creepy outcast (Kanell) and our pale-faced protagonist (Smith) who fights his fate while wearing band t-shirts that are far too old for him. Veteran actresses Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway also make appearances in contrived, unnecessary scenes that are there to point out the filmmakers didn't properly utilize their shooting schedule. Thus we're pretty much stuck with our fresh-faced meat-sacks for the duration of this film.
And while we're stuck with them, our group of heroes seems to be hopelessly stuck in a plot that is actively working against them. They start the obligatory parade of clichés by having a housewarming séance. They then immediately fall into false frights, unexplained phenomena, and a second act investigation requiring one or more of them to rummage through library records. All the while, any chance to flesh out our characters is eschewed in favor of everyone yelling "who did you tell!" The only time we're offered a respite from the painfully expected and familiar is when we get heavily edited flashback scenes of the Bye Bye Man tormenting a reporter (Whannell) who got a little too nosy for his own good. These scenes approach the quality of mediocre dinner theater.
At one point early in the film, Elliot yells from the other room "Let's watch something stupid," to his girlfriend who is distracted by haunting noise. We then cut to them sleeping. That in a nutshell is The Bye Bye Man. It's a lazy, boring and predictable movie that at times feels edited beyond comprehension. Don't think it, don't say it - Don't see it.
This movie is atrocious by all outside metrics - It's slow moving, it's
poorly edited, it's painfully contrived, it's noticeably cheap looking
it's kind of fun to watch. Okay, maybe it's a stretch to say that
the fifth installment of this morose ode to fang kink is fun to watch.
It's clear from the generous amounts of recaps, flash backs and the, oh
so overused callbacks the Underworld series (2003-Present) has all but
run out of steam. Yet what remains serviceable about this film, the
action sequences, the reductive sexuality, the Supernatural
(2005-Present) meets Game of Thrones (2011-Present) intrigue, is
precisely what the fans want.
Underworld: Blood Wars begins with a sloppily edited, voice over recap about our long suffering protagonist's journey from scrappy vampire warrior to bloodsucker pariah, to mother of "the chosen one." We then see Selene (Beckinsale) take on a pack of fanatic werewolves whose new leader Marius (Menzies) has a vested interest in Selene's daughter's blood. Problem is Selene doesn't know where her daughter is the lycans, don't know where her daughter is the vampire clan shoehorned into this movie, also don't know where her daughter is! Seriously has no one called for an Amber Alert at this point? Selene is then wrapped up into the palace intrigue of a prestigious vampire coven, led by Semira (Pulver) whose nefarious plans are as webbed and needlessly contrived as her outfits. Watching this film spill its yarn was like enduring the uncomfortable S&M fantasies of a zealous Dungeons and Dragons DM. There's half-thought-out drivel about pure blood vampire lines, Selene somehow harnessing the power to create mirages, the war between vampires and lycans which is always a fixture then there are the elves. The movie explains they're a secluded coven of vampires but no, they're f***ing elves! There's a lot of ridiculousness in this film is my point and not a single scene goes on without elongated monologues spouting exposition. Yet while the machinery of Blood Wars loudly chugs along, a recalibration is happening. In the mix are series holdovers David (T. James) and lead vampire daddy Thomas (Dance), whose character arcs clunkily reach some kind of resolution. Our villain Marius likewise borrows up-in-the-air elements from earlier installments and clumsily curb stomps them so they'll (hopefully) never be mentioned again. Add to all this the fact that you never actually find out what happened to the daughter and it feels to me that the series is slicing on through and then asking for a mulligan.
It's all very obvious and at times too cringe-worthy to bear, but with so many scenes littered in form-fitting leather, it's now possible to conclude this series finally knows what its doing. I mean come on, the film goes so far as to introduce the baby-faced Alexia (Head) and the chiseled Vargas (B. James); two characters whose main jobs are to be sexual props for other characters. From the fan's perspective, this IP essentially amounts to nothing more than elaborate Gothic role-play, faux elegant depictions of bloodletting, cool ninja warrior acrobatics and a female protagonist who gets off on being hurt. I'm not saying I approve but having our hero rip out a werewolf's spine while in a literal cage is arguably better than the Romeo and Juliet bulls**t we got in the first one.
Somewhere in between this film's vibrant colors, its collage of
fluttering paint and its exquisite, rustic setting, a thought crossed
my mind. Well two in fact, but more on that later. The disarmingly
simple tale of a boy who conjures a monster to solve his problems is
the kind that feels familiar. Yet with a surprising amount of maturity
coupled with a frank exploration of grief, anguish and anger, A Monster
Calls is unlike anything you have seen before. Watching A Monster Calls
is like discovering a new chemical compound or mixing colors to make a
startling new hue. That's right, for the first time in a long time, I
feel like I've watched something new.
The monster has been conjured by a nearby ewe tree, which is rooted in a cemetery a bit too close to the young Conor's (MacDougall) home. He frequently has nightmares, exacerbated by the fact that his mother has been suffering from cancer for quite some time. At 12:07 the monster, a lumbering assemblage of branches and roots, stops in to tell three stories. "The fourth you must tell and you must speak the truth," the monster says. Yet with Conor's intermittent struggles with his oppressive grandmother, his absent father and the bullies in school, the monsters stories sound more to him like elaborate riddles than anything that might help ease his pain.
The story itself has a fable-like quality that soothes the soul with lessons that, to this day remain frightfully undervalued. When not interweaving artful displays of special-effects, the film beautifully and honestly brings its characters to life warts and all. Lewis MacDougall's instincts are absolutely at one with the story he finds the perfect moments to reveal Conor's inner-life and seems to have internalized what his mother says about what makes his drawings more real; "It's all in the eyes." Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell also all find their footing like singers naturally adjusted and practiced for their harmonies. While Jones recoils, Weaver propels; when Jones beams, Kebbell simpers. What we get at the end, is a symphony of feeling. One in which director J.A. Bayona is its stalwart conductor.
And as a conductor, Bayona uses a wide range of visual cues and storytelling techniques to his advantage, to set the appropriate tone. When the monster leers at the paralyzed boy, branches crack and knot around the mis en scene in glorious texture. When the monster recalls tales of long ago, the screen explodes in scenes of animated watercolor. And lest you think things are only interesting when the monster calls, the set design is so rich with story enhancing detail that not a frame of this film loses impetus.
Which brings me to my second, not so gracious thought; with a movie so honest, I honestly wonder who this movie is for. Its messages are so clearly displayed and its themes are so outwardly depressing that I fear audiences would run the other way before taking a chance on it. In addition, the film wraps things up much like a fable, going so far as to announce the moral of the story, which leads me to believe this film's prime demographic is children. Show me a parent with enough faith in their child to bring them to A Monster Calls and the popcorn is on me. As the monster himself said, "People would rather live with a comforting lie than the truth, knowing full well they need the truth to tell the lie." I doubt many will see A Monster Calls, despite its pedigree, despite its special-effects and despite its new and refreshing story. This is a movie that will reach deeper than you're used to, ask more of you than you're used to and give you the feels way, way more than you're used to. Some may find that notion too hard and shy away. I for one found this film and its endgame positively vital.
Two priests, alike in their devotion for their former mentor, enter the
country of Japan to find word of his fate. It is the 16th century and
more than a decade has past since the Shimabara Rebellion which caused
the Tokugawa Shogunate to actively suppress Catholicism across Japan.
"The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger,"
warns the priests' superior. "You will be the last two priests to enter
Japan. An army of two." Thus Silence begins; our attention and in many
ways our faith is carried through by the quest of the sincere but
arrogant Rodrigues (Garfield) and the pragmatic and terse Garrpe
It is a well known fact in film circles that director Martin Scorsese is a devout Catholic whose faith at one point geared him towards joining the priesthood. You get a sense of that whenever Catholicism inserts itself into his work (as it often does). There are obvious tonal shifts which do a good job at paying proper respect to the divine without taking away from the story. At his most reverential however, such as in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), that tone greatly enriches the film as if shining a light on an ancient gold quilled manuscript or filtering a beam of sun between panes of stain glass windows.
That constant reverence shows up here, though Silence wisely injects oceans of naturalistic beauty that at times feel more like parts of Kundun (1997) than, say, the catholic mass in Mean Streets (1973). Despite a change in setting, similar questions echo in the dark caverns, lush bamboo forests and Edo period fortresses of this film. Can you be forgiven selfish acts in the pursuit of selflessness? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is redemption achievable? - and probably most importantly, is anyone really up there? None of these questions are of course answered; how can they be, given the pain and suffering so many go through in the course of this film. Catholics, largely peasants and laymen are forced to blaspheme, are tortured and/or executed for the sake of preserving the foundations of Japanese sovereignty against what they see as European encroachment. In voice over, Rodrigues comments that he has never seen a race more devoted to the faith, - his reflections betray his own wavering devotion and can't help but feel incredibly naive in the face of Inquisitor Inoue's (Ogata) questions.
It's no stretch to presume that silence is an important motif in the film. The lack of a film score and the story's inclusion of secret masses only cajoles the audience into listening intently for a lack of noise. What we hear instead are constant insertions of God's grace: the gentle breezes, the crashing of waves, the rustling of bushes and trees. Only once does the film go completely quiet. Only then does Scorsese, for the first time presume to know the judgment of God where before he has remained silent.
The faithful and the faithless will no doubt see Silence in vastly different ways. As a lapsed Catholic myself, I can sit uncomfortably on the fence and see two camps forging a mutual appreciation for the film while taking potshots at its transgressions. One camp appreciates the religious seriousness and contemplation of Silence; a mode that only inhabits a mainstream Hollywood feature maybe once every decade. The other, more secular side gravitates towards the film as form. Those in the know will catch on to the channeling of Japanese greats such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi and especially Akira Kurosawa.
Yet what's sorely lacking from Silence is a sense of history. We get a very satisfying and granular peek onto one man's crisis of conscience but we get very little information on the social, political and economic forces that have shaped Rodrigues's harrowing story. As a vessel for proved colonization and cultural genocide, Catholicism, sadly only gets a third-act tongue lashing. Also, setting up Japan's aggressive period of isolation as an original sin of sorts, could have made for an interesting dimension. Alas that tact is ignored to make room for meditations on private vs. public faith. Also for a movie about Japan starring an almost exclusively Japanese cast, it's disheartening we're spending so much time with the only three white people on the islands.
All in all, Silence stops just short of being a must-see cinematic experience. There's a lot to recommend here, and considering how much it gets right, I'd venture to say the movie might just transubstantiate for you. Scorsese has stated in the past that he's been interested in adapting this story to the screen for over a quarter century, but has never felt ready until now. Some people may think he finally came around to it after maturity in his faith. I'd venture to say it's penance for making The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
Why Him? is about as close as you can get to stinking as a movie
without necessarily being completely and irredeemably awful. A lot of
American comedies seem to be falling into this mean of
"just-bearably-good-enough". So much so that I think we should coin a
sucktastic? A meh-ricle? Below ugh-rage?
While I work on it, I might as well tell you about Why Him?, a movie about a bourgeois Midwestern family traveling to the West Coast to meet their college daughter's boyfriend. The kicker here is the boyfriend; one Laird Mayhew (Franco) is an eccentric billionaire completely lacking social awareness and a filter. This comes as a big surprise to the family patriarch; Ned (Cranston), who sees Laird's unconventional lifestyle and outward inanity as an affront to his close relationship to his loving daughter Stephanie (Deutch).
The high concept alone is ripe with possibility. Perhaps if the characters vaguely resembled humans, the screenplay could have pit the sometime arcane social graces of Midwestern congeniality with the laid-back Techtopian peculiarities of Silicon Valley. The film further sets up sub-textual conflicts as Ned, the owner of a family operated printing press tries and fails to acclimate to Laird's aggressively millennial ephemera. It's old vs. new, rich vs. middle class, salt of the earth vs. not-salt-of-the-earth. The possibilities are simply too good to ignore.
Then like a toddler ignoring his new toy and instead playing with the box it came in, Why Him? proceeds to crush the soul. The movie becomes grating within the first fifteen minutes, right when Cranston and Franco occupy the same space for the very first time. It is at that moment you become aware that both of these accomplished and worthy actors are trying to achieve two very different ends.
Cranston quietly seethes and sighs in exasperation with every big comedic set-piece. The movie is clearly on his side throughout, but it fails spectacularly to find a tone, an arc, let alone the real human being Cranston is evidently trying to create. I'm assuming he was lost somewhere amid the hours of improvised footage that was shot, because that's how comedies are made these days. If I had to guess I'd like to think he was trying to channel Richard Dreyfuss in What About Bob? (1991) but ended up with the put upon lethargy of the parents from Step Brothers (2008).
Franco on the other hand is playing the same dumb, obnoxious lothario he's always played in films like these, only with a tacked on sweetness that makes him the victim of farce of the laziest stripe. It's clear from his barrage of vulgarity that he's playing for the cheap seats in this film, which upon his introduction to the family feels like they're putting the least clever Trailer Park Boy in a Ken Loach film. At one point a character tells the entrenched Ned, "you think it's him versus you but he's not fighting, you're the only one fighting." That indeed is the film's most serious flaw; all the conflict is within the mind of one character. And sure the film tries to flip the script, putting the entire onus on the would-be father-in-law instead of the son-in-law. But that model quickly falls apart when the film tries to stir the pot as Laird confesses he's trying to ask Stephanie's hand in marriage.
Thankfully with a clash of character direction, minor characters are given a chance to shine. On the farcical side, Keegan-Michael Peele's wacky personal assistant/confidant/evasive parkour instructor does have a few good moments. Meanwhile, down on earth, Megan Mullally absolutely slays it as the family matriarch whose look of extreme discomfort comes with the funniest quips.
Yet for every decent jest there are about a dozen or so, that just plain don't work. In the quest for cringe, so many comedies today fail to do the very thing their supposed to do, and instead coax reactions out of the sheer awkwardness of it all. Stop it - please, just stop shooting for the bare minimum! Stop being a half-a**ed crumbedy. Okay, I promise I'll try harder which, in fairness is what this film should have done.
Since The Eagle Huntress is a documentary, I will do it the courtesy of
getting directly to the point. The movie is stunning. It's beautifully
shot, incredibly rendered and a substantial storytelling treat. It's
the rare documentary that takes its admittedly small subject matter, a
girl and her pet eagle, and capitalizes on the rich opportunities
therein. Furthermore, if you took out Daisy Ridley's narration, and the
side interviews that hammer home the fact that you're watching a girl
power film in the best possible sense, you'd swear this film was a
The Eagle Huntress is the moniker of the young Aisholpan Nurgaiv; a 13-year-old girl who sheds tradition to take part in a sport exclusively for the males of her culture. For more than twelve generations, Aisholpan's ancestors used eagles to compete in falconry competitions, hunt for foxes and gain a form of status among the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppes. Tribal leaders and fellow Eagle Hunters of course, balk at the idea of Aisholpan's inclusion. But with the help of her supportive father (an accomplished Eagle Hunter in his own rite), Aisholpan tirelessly goes through the training to become the first female Eagle Huntress in history.
Part of her journey includes taking part in the Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia, where Aisholpan and her eaglet compete in a myriad of events to determine the best of the best. Whether on purpose or a happy accident, the camera fastidiously captures every event with careful and visceral consideration. The blithe and even hostile looks people give our hero as she trots her horse towards the sign-in booth, gives the audience so much to invest in. The cherry on top is Aisholpan's newly minted hair pompoms which hang on her braids like an announcement of the changing winds.
Tucked in-between the festival and Aisholpan's first foray into winter time fox hunting are exquisite depictions of everyday nomadic life on the perilous steppe. Aisholpan and her young siblings play along the borders of their parents yert as the austere mountains threaten to envelope their livelihood. You get a sense both of the dangers of living in such inhospitable lands, and the allure of such a quaint and insulated existence among grass, rock and pebbled riverbeds. Though the majesty and the quiet dignity, there looms an omnipresent reality; these tribal groups have been living like this since before Napoleon, Charles II and the founding of the United States and will continue to do so far into the future.
If there is one drawback to a documentary this beautiful inside and out, it comes out of the blurring of reality and staged reality. Director Otto Bell has made it clear in interviews that parts of the film are edited out of chronological order in order to belabor its feminist message. Furthermore, if you're hyper-aware of the camera and its placement it's impossible not to conclude several shots were not candid shots. While I understand why these things were included, and while I agree that they don't necessarily break the tenuous rules of documentary film making, they hardly seem necessary given the subject.
And my what a multifaceted subject Aisholpan proves to be. Her steadfast love for her family, her spirit in the face of adversity and her uncompromising zeal for the sport she loves so very much, is enough to rank among the best coming-of-age stories. She's impossible not to root for - and I guarantee by the end, you'll love her for it.
Born in rural destitution, the 5-year-old Saroo followed his older
brother to the local railway station one night. He fell asleep in a
train car, and woke up 900 miles away edging towards the bustling city
of Calcutta. After weeks of scavenging for scraps near the rails, Saroo
was brought to a center for abandoned children and quickly adopted by a
an Australian couple who raised and took care of him for 25 years.
Lion's Dickensian tale of a displaced child who is adopted, brought to a faraway land and decides to trek back in search of his real family, is all the more harrowing when you consider the whole thing is a true story. While Saroo's "A Long Way Home" never really caught fire in the west until, well until just now, the story was all the rage back in India and Australia. In addition to being a challenging but ultimately heartwarming story of loss, reunion and renewal, the tale also works as a rallying cry, by drawing attention to India's indignant, indifferent and sometimes predatory policies towards impoverished children.
Yet despite the story's obvious appeal and the anchored authority of it being true, there's still something about Lion that rings a hollow note. Part of might have something to do with director Garth Davis's approach to the material. As a fairly green feature length director, Davis injects the screen with liberal amounts of stylistic bravado, as if to show the audience what he as a storyteller can do. He uses a host of not just visual motifs but story devices to achieve his ends including prolonged fever dreams of the older Saroo (Patel), struggling with the penumbras of his young brother Guddu (Bharate) desperately searching for him. This of course is all set to a score that plucks on the heart strings like the licks of a wistful sitar.
It's dapper film work to be sure, but it does surprisingly little as world building technique. That problem that is compounded when the young Saroo (Pawar) travels to Australia to meet his new parents (Kidman and Wenham). The camera likes to doddle on Saroo gingerly touching a TV for the first time and seeing a full fridge for the first time and ignores the multitude of micro-expressions that the cast is trying convey. At many points Lion felt less like a movie about people than about moving parts.
The best parts of the film are the parts that feel the most honest. The scenes involving the budding courtship of college-aged Saroo and Lucy (Mara), all have a certain giddiness to them. On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's minor role is so effectively creepy that you almost forget he's one of the most recognizable pacesetters in modern Bollywood. There is also a quiet scene in a classmates kitchen where for the first time as an adult, Saroo realizes there is something dolefully missing from his bourgeois life. It is at that moment Patel truly shows he's got a range that few movies would allow him to exercise.
Yet every time Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara transcend to do some of their most compelling work, we're once again distracted by the shorthand version of truly effective film making. Sadly at these moments, you become aware that you're not watching the best version of this story but merely an inauthentic distillation. A white dude's version, of a white dude's script adapted for white people looking for the same high they got watching Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Unfortunately Lion leaves a little too much to be desired as a cinematic experience. It dances frustratingly close to the edge of being not just good but great, but ultimately leans on cliché and hackneyed movie-of-the-week dramatics to pull its story through. Those inclined to see Lion, should definitely wait through the credits. Surprisingly you get more of an emotional payoff watching the Brierley family home videos than you do watching everything else.
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