Lion

Danny Boyle famously accredited his casting of Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire to his daughter, a fan of the TV series Skins in which Patel first made his name. As Anwar, a Pakistani teenage ne’er-do-well who only prayed five times a day to make up for his devout lifestyle of drug-taking and casual sex, Patel was an underwritten scene-stealer defined by a quiet difficulty to reconcile his Islamic faith with his enthusiasm for the group’s anarchic antics. Ten years later, Patel has carved out a solid and genre-crossing career of starring roles with The Man Who Knew Infinity, Chappie and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But whether it was Anwar’s identity crisis specifically that caught Boyle’s attention or not, Patel has shepherded an innate gift for portraying nuance and contradiction in his characters to such natural effect. With this season’s Lion, he takes this to the next level with a role demanding not only an identity in crisis, but an identity haunted.

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At only five years old, in the rural slums of India, Saroo is accidentally separated from his older brother Guddu and their family. Lost in the chaos and corruption of Calcutta, hundreds of miles from home, he is eventually just lucky enough to find himself in an orphanage, where he is adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years on, Saroo (Dev Patel) has flourished under their care, but the family he left behind haunts him still, and soon begins a desperate search for the pieces of his past life.

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There’s very little about Garth Davis’ feature debut as director that can be said without one word; haunting. Saroo’s story, an awe-inspiring true story with next-to-no creative license taken, is in a way a ghost story. Saroo is a person literally haunted by his past, and all the agonizing questions that anyone would chase in circles forever around their head were they in his position. Lion’s greatest triumph is that it doesn’t simply engage the audience with his turmoil: it actively puts you in it. His journey is our journey, and his ghosts become our unfinished business. The film takes the awful reality of Saroo’s childhood trauma and applies next-to-no creative license, because no dramatic contrivance is needed. His desperate experience plays out in full, vivid and harrowing fashion, and all of it executed to such intensely hair-raising effect. Dev Patel certainly delivers a career-high performance for Saroo’s adult years, but ultimately the film belongs to Sunny Pawar as the lost boy. It’s his part of the story that does all the heavy-lifting, and for a child actor to carry a film such as this to the extent that he does is nothing short of incredible. He doesn’t need a big crying scene, or to scream for his character’s mother and brother, to fully convey his slow descent into hopelessness and despair, but equally he doesn’t need to act jubilantly to capture the happiness Saroo finds with his new family. Pawar plays it soft and quiet, and so his performance hits the hardest and rings the loudest.

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Lion is very much a story in two parts, to such extent that despite its standard two-hour run-time it ultimately feels more akin to a three-hour epic, so effectively does it capture Saroo’s long journey from home to home to home. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of compact yet comprehensive approach that so many of the major ‘two-part’ book-to-blockbuster adaptations shun, to their constant detriment. Watching Patel scour Google Earth to retrace his childhood wanderings, it’s somehow both difficult and easy to remember he is that same lost boy who fled from human traffickers, scavenged for food and slept on sheets of cardboard, so distant does his own past feel to the audience. The film goes to such tremendous efforts to fully flesh out both his lives in equal measure, aided not least by the supporting talents of Kidman and Rooney Mara as his college girlfriend, as well as an electric turn from Divian Ladwa as Saroo’s fellow adopted brother Mantosh (whose own torments are worn much more openly). How the questions that haunt him impact those he cares about, as well as his ability to be anything other than that ever-searching lost boy, is a constant tug at the heartstrings. At times, the intense focus on his pain does detract from a clearer understanding of the overall goings on in his life, but even this plays into the story’s tone of deep despair and desperation.

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Awards season is no stranger to films billing themselves as ‘the incredible true story’ or ‘based on true events’, however vaguely. What sets Lion apart from the biopic herd is an uncompromising commitment to truth. Saroo’s story doesn’t need to take creative liberties, and the film has the confidence and the respect not to take them. The result: a tremendously powerful experience that speaks to the importance of family and human connection in all its forms, and shines a light on parts of the world where to lose such connections is to lose everything.

Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

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Fences

Nick Bolton recently wrote in Vanity Fair about the death of traditional Hollywood. As Netflix, Amazon Prime and the market of digital streaming dramatically reshapes the landscape of the entertainment industry, the almost ritualistic practice of going to the cinema and sitting down in the dark to watch a film with a hundred or so strangers faces an ever-growing sense of becoming obsolete. Why go to the cinema and fork out all that money for your tickets and your drinks and your snacks and the parking? It’s inconvenient, and rarely does the cinema offer much sense of an occasion to justify the excursion. But amidst these uncertain times, the theatre remains a steadfast bastion of the traditional arts. People still go to the theatre in droves. People get all dressed up, go out for dinner beforehand, and discuss the production avidly after. A night at the theatre is always a night remembered. In adapting the late August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences from stage to screen, director Denzel Washington proves there is still a sense of occasion to be had from the cinema yet.

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In the mid-1950s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Troy Maxson (Washington) lives a life of hard graft and small comforts. Whilst his almost-two-decade marriage to Rose (Viola Davis) remains a largely happy one, his relationship with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) has only ever been turbulent, and the weight on his shoulders is only further laden by an estranged son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and his severely mentally-impaired brother (Mykelti Williamson). When Cory is scouted by a college football team, Troy is caught between his own fears leftover from past rejection as a sportsman, his devout belief in a man’s sense of responsibility, and jealousy at the son’s potential to outshine the father.

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Even to complete strangers of Wilson’s play, a mere ten minutes is all it takes for the film to convey its deep roots in the stage. Almost entirely taking place within the boundaries of the Maxson’s suburban property, Fences is a family drama that both fits tightly within Troy’s restrictive worldview and radiates out of the big screen as an immensely engrossing slice-of-life exploration into black communities of that time. Everything from the arrangement of the actors on-set to the limited background music to the lighting captures that feeling of not just watching everything unfold via countless pixels, but as if the screen has been physically reshaped into a three-dimensional space where its big-name talent is within touching distance. Even scenes in the street outside the Maxson residence, whilst the road itself clearly stretches off into the distance, feel like background pieces of the set, like incredibly detailed landscape paintings. The fact that despite all this, things never feel claustrophobic, monotonous or in the vein of a cheap ‘bottleneck episode’ set-up, further cements the film’s intuitive understanding of raw, engaging drama that knows how to connect with the audience.

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Indeed, rawness is the word here, as a simple Tennessee Williams-esque premise such as this ultimately lives or dies on the calibre of the actors in the spotlight. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are undeniably such actors, and both rise to the occasion to deliver utterly exquisite performances. Playing off each other with chemistry reminiscent of such classic pairings as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, every layer of who Troy and Rose are is slowly peeled back, and the currents of emotion underneath it all are laid bare. Washington’s performance alone is more than enough to steal the experience single-handed, pulling off every detail of Troy’s rough-edged, world-weary, heartfelt yet equally heartless existence. But Davis is nothing less than a one-woman powerhouse, a true showstopper and artist whose Rose is deserving of not only the highest acclaim and accolades, but of the history books.

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Washington at the helm of Fences delivers a cinematic work that is the definition of a labour of love, its every ingredient a clearly considered honouring of the late August Wilson’s keen human interest and insight. It’s a story of suburban blackness, and a dissecting story at that, but as Washington himself insisted during a February 8th discussion at London’s National Theatre, “it’s what you bring to it”. As closely confined as the borders and fences of the Maxson’s world may be, it’s a world that can speak to every visitor.

 

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

La La Land

2016 was a year that witnessed the passing of many an iconic contributor to international arts, but Debbie Reynolds left an especially deep wound in America’s entertainment culture. Hollywood had lost one of the last great faces of what many consider to be a golden age. Whereas today the box office bursts with superheroes and Minions, once upon a time it was the musical which dominated the medium, and how so very many of those have endured the test of time for their song and dance numbers, as well as their timeless characters and stories. But times change, and Hollywood has now found itself in something of an identity crisis. Mining franchises for all they’re worth (and then some), fanning audience nostalgia, chasing evermore astronomical opening weekend box office numbers. People complain that they don’t make anything original anymore, and they’re right. Original is risky, and transporting ourselves to past times and places is partly why we tell stories at all, isn’t it? But in clinging to past glories, when and what should be considered too tight? Damien Chazelle, in association with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, presents this awards season’s love letter to Hollywood old renewed: La La Land.

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Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) has always dreamed of her big break in Hollywood. Seb Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz music purist determined to one day open his own L.A jazz club. Chance encounters forever intertwine their paths through the City of Angels, but chasing your dreams takes a lot of reality checks, and ambition is rarely rewarded without a price.

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If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear, it’s that director Damien Chazelle LOVES jazz. His last project in the chair, 2014’s multi-award nominated ‘Whiplash’, was a furious feature-length fangasm to the genre, and here he fuses that abundant enthusiasm with the unenviable task of resurrecting an era of cinema long since boxed up and shipped to the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ warehouse of film history (barring the occasional breakout for TV re-broadcasts). As genre blends go, historically they’re not exactly the most obvious of bedfellows (barring the genius that is High Society) but with an opening number that delivers L.A. commuters leaping from their vehicles and into a sweeping ensemble extravaganza, Chazelle certainly makes a statement about taking both music and performance in today’s Hollywood to the next level. It’s a stage-setting set-piece that radiates pure adoration for its cinematic history, that defies audiences not to enjoy themselves, be it through the music itself or the plethora of homages on display. Indeed, when it comes to the big set-pieces throughout, Chazelle has a demonstrably keen and palatable sense of spectacle and sensation that he interweaves deftly with yet more clever call-backs to the stylisations of a bygone Hollywood. The result: a dazzling visual experience that allows the eye to feast on colours, textures and choreography galore.

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But whilst there is an irrepressible love for the film’s unique musical identity at work here, as well as an obviously profound respect and admiration for Hollywood history, La La Land struggles to fully reconcile the potential of both into a more consistent and creative piece of storytelling. Showstoppers come, showstoppers go. Gorgeous cinematography and inventive imagery abounds, but what should feel like a symphony that hits all the right notes instead resonates as more of a disparate collection of greatest hits with scant and sporadic emotional coherence. First and greatest of the casualties of this effect are, in fact, our protagonists. Stone has long since proven herself as an actor and performer to be reckoned with, and headlining a major movie musical is clearly a career occasion deserving of her efforts which she more than rises to. More than anyone besides Chazelle, La La Land belongs to her. That said, as much as she owns her every song and dance, as well as she communicates both Mia’s resilience and vulnerability, her material feels in the end somewhat under-serving of her talents. It’s a problem that extends even more so to Gosling, with Seb given very little characterization that doesn’t come directly from his mania for jazz music. Consequently, this leaves us with a one-dimensional lead who offers little variety in the way of his own musical input (ironic considering the character’s excitement for music he explicitly describes as fundamentally reliant on intensity, challenge, variety and improvisation). Hampered yet further by a plot that limits itself to a somewhat generic ‘authenticity vs. success’ debate, the greatest crime of which is twisting Mia and Seb’s characterizations to suit the narrative’s needs (with little transition), and the overall spectacle loses perhaps its most vital ingredient: surprises.

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Like any musical, however, in the end it’s the songs and dances we come for, and any serious attempt to reconnect with Hollywood’s harmonious history had better deliver at least a couple of knockouts and belters. But whilst La La Land has dances big and small, and ballads hushed and loud, rarely does it find itself able to combine the two in the traditional style. Stone and Gosling sing, and Stone and Gosling dance, but almost never simultaneously, and what musical moments they do mix and match are typically low-energy or build-up. It’s a general lack of connection such as this, between music and performance styles, that ultimately detracts from the overall effect of the film as a ‘musical’. Spectacular as some of the set-pieces are, as loving lookbacks to a more theatrical time in the industry this may be, and as dedicated the actors are in their roles, in the end there just isn’t enough musical resonance to go on. Perhaps two or three songs will stay in your head afterwards, but even those are more likely to just vaguely echo around your head rather than have you bursting into your own renditions (albeit with one exception that steals the show for Stone).

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La La Land is a good movie in and of itself. But Whiplash was a better movie about jazz, A Star Is Born is a better musical about Hollywood, and Crazy Stupid Love is perhaps a better executed romance.

Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

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