Jalebis, Google Earth and Lost Children in Lion

lion-sunny-pawar

The unexpected presence of jalebis (an Indian street food/sweet treat) at a friend’s party in Australia transports Saroo (Dev Patel) back to India and memories of being a hungry child desiring that delicacy, which was always out of reach but his older brother promised him he would have one day. Saroo was adopted at age five from a Calcutta orphanage by a loving Australian couple living in Tasmania. Lion would have you believe this jalebi moment is the first time he has thought about his birth mother and family (a dramatic interpretation from this true-life tale) since then, but we the viewers have that story and its compelling images and emotions seared into our brains by this point. Thus we willingly go along with adult Saroo’s journey back to those moments on his quest to find his original home and family.

The film wisely plays out the drama in chronological order. We first meet Saroo and his family when he is five, where they live a harsh but happy rural life…one that disappears when Saroo falls asleep on a train that takes him 1600 km from home to Calcutta where he becomes a street urchin running from danger at every corner. Even in light of the clever cinematography (aerial shots early on meld into dream-like memories and scanning of Google Earth for home in his adulthood), the star of the film is without a doubt young Sunny Pawar, who leaves an indelible mark that follows the proud tradition of orphans and lost and wandering children in such classics like Pather Panchali and Salaam Bombay! The episodic nature of the film’s first half is effortlessly compelling and casts a Dickensian spell over the viewer as Saroo encounters increasingly shady characters before finally connecting with those who could help him. Continue reading

Lynchian Legacy and Family Matters in Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel

Many shows have tried...and failed...to recapture the spirit of "Laura Palmer."

Many people have tried…and failed…to recapture that spirit of Laura Palmer. But there will only ever be one Laura Palmer. And one Twin Peaks.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 23 years now since Twin Peaks graced the small screen, but even though it aired for only a year and a half, its legacy can still be felt today on television and in film in works like Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel – though only ones of these, thanks to the amazing lead performance of Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel, hints at anything memorable.

Jane Campion's TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.

Jane Campion’s TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.

Currently on the Sundance Channel, the New Zealand set slow-boil mystery, Top of the Lake, borrows liberally from David Lynch’s signature series. Film auteur Jane Campion follows in Lynch’s footsteps by turning to television with this melancholy miniseries chronicling a Sydney detective (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, boldly against type) returning to her remote New Zealand home town (an eerie down under mirror of Lynch’s Pacific Northwest with its mountains, lakes and dark woods) to care for her cancer-stricken mother only to get sucked into the local mystery surrounding the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year old who just so happens to be the illegitimate daughter of the town drug lord.

Continue reading

The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  Continue reading

A Review of Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”

CAPTION:  In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, cinematography and Kidman rule.

The Wizard of Aussie-land Conjures Something Shockingly Good 8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

And now it’s time for a story about our friend Baz. Mr. Luhrmann holds the dubious honor of directing the only film I have ever walked out on in the theater. After fifteen minutes of the insipid kitsch of his Moulin Rouge! my friends and I bolted. About a year later I watched the film in its entirety to give it a fair chance and declared it the worst film of all time. His nauseating, hyper-realized, quick-cut style of editing and boiling down of every story arc to its rotten simplistic core was the most obnoxious trend in film-making I could ever imagine. Well, Baz went home to Australia to think long and hard about where he was headed as a director. After a seven year hiatus, he conjured up a huge budget, invited his muse Nicole Kidman for the ride, whipped up every conceivable cliché from epic movie history into a slow boil and spewed the sprawling tale of his homeland onto the screen in Australia.

Australia has an opening fifteen minutes that are cringe-worthy. It appeared Baz learned nothing from his walkabout and was delivering a mega-storm of comical kitsch that almost had me heading for the exit. But there was something oddly magical about this unwieldy dust storm of muddled Australian history, Aboriginal mysticism, and Outback adventure that prompted me to stick with the film and see if Baz had learned any new tricks. Much to my surprise, Mr. Luhrmann did, and it’s not just the slow-mo cam or the sweeping shots of the Australian Northern Territory that Luhrmann warmed to. It turns out when your heart is in the right place, clichés can work and become dramatically engaging. Luhrmann not only attempts to create his own modern version of Gone With the Wind with the cattle ranch at Faraway Downs substituting for the plantation at Tara, but he also desires to heal the racial wounds of his entire nation. He’s a man madly in love with movies and recklessly drawn to his homeland’s history. His handling of Australia’s part in WWII and the racial strife between Australia’s Aborigines and the English settlers may strike some as condescending and trite, but those would be the people missing the point of the film.

At its core, like Tarsem’s The Fall, this Australia is about creating a good story and the mythos of film. Whereas The Fall presented us dazzling images we had never seen before, Australia presents us a dizzying array of epic filmdom’s greatest hits. There’s a rousing cliffhanging cattle stampede, a romantic kiss in the rain, a not so subtle Wizard of Oz motif, a Japanese bombing of Darwin, a daring rescue of orphans, and a weepy reunion in the wake of tragedy. There’s comedy, thrills, drama, romance, and a message. No stone is left unturned on this vast continent, and the most wonderful thing about it is if you can forgive the opening fifteen minutes of dreck, the remaining two and half hours work splendidly as grand-scale entertainment.

Ignore the critics and leave your prejudices at the door. The plot of the film is irrelevant as any story arc is merely an excuse for Baz Luhrmann to unleash another sumptuous image from his dreams of Australia’s past. And though the characters are drawn in broad strokes, know that the performances are uniformly finely wrought, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman complimenting each other nicely and proving to be especially adept acting through the wildly shifting tones. By framing the story through the narration of Nullah, a half-caste Aborigine boy played sympathetically by Brandon Walters, Luhrmann lets the audience know that this film is about telling your own story and dreaming big dreams. In doing so he re-imagines the history of his Australia as a fable and with the help of a little movie magic adds a relevant layer to the mythos of film. Crickey, that sounds like a pretty good story to me.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0455824/usercomments-63

Mongolian Trailer Park

CAPTION:  Ghengis Khan is all up in this yurt.

So last week I saw that flick Mongol, you know, the new epic about Ghengis Khan made by a Russian director (Sergei Bodrov), starring a Japanese dude (Tadonubo Asano), nominated for an Oscar, and inexplicably released stateside in the middle of the summer movie season.  It was a pretty good movie that held my interest for two hours by exposing me to a culture I know little about and featuring a well played out historical epic story arc complete with requisite kick-ass battle scenes.  Sitting there getting frosty in the air-conditioned theater while the heat and humidity raged outside, I couldn’t help thinking this was a movie better suited for the prestigious autumnal season.  With the most gluttonous of film seasons in full swing (is The Dark Knight out yet?), I decided to take a look ahead at my favorite season in film and weather. 

Here I present my list of most anticipated movies for Fall 2008:

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1.  The Miracle at St. Anna  (scheduled release date:  9/26)

The Director:  Spike Lee

The Stars:  Derek Luke, John Leguizamo, James Gandolfini, Joseph Gordon Levitt, some cute Italian kid, Alexandra Maria Lara, and a boatload of other people and familiar faces

The Scoop:  Okay, so I will admit it right here, right now.  I love Spike Lee.  I even liked She Hate Me.  He’s a cunning provocateur who’s had numerous peaks and valleys in his career but just won’t stop no matter what and always seems to get his name in the papers–witness Clint Eastwood telling him recently to “shut his face”.  Spike is coming off the most commercially successful film of his long career with Inside Man.  With this adaptation of the novel by James McBride about a group of African-American soldiers trapped in Tuscany during WWII, he’s giving us his first epic since Malcom X.    The trailer for this film is a smashing success that manages to sell the film as both a murder mystery and a searing Saving Private Ryan style WWII drama.  This latest Spike Lee Joint has so many great things going for it:  an auteur on the precipice of a personal artistic and commercial Renaissance (much like the one Scorsese recently went through with The Aviator and The Departed); a great storyline that has the potential to provoke discussions of history, race, religion and politics in a historic Presidential election year; and a multi-ethnic cast that includes a cute Italian kid, and as a special bonus for me, the devastatingly seductive Alexandra Maria Lara, whose beauty alone made Francis Ford Coppola’s recent debacle Youth Without Youth worth watching.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3941007641/

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2.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (scheduled release date:  12/19)

The Director:  David Fincher

The Stars:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond

The Scoop:  This is the fantastic case of a gimmick film (it tells the not so simple story of a man who ages backwards, folks) with a literary pedigree (adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald).  I first saw the trailer for this in front of the latest Indiana Jones flick, and the packed house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  Its epic scope appears to be a complete departure for director Fincher, and its unique story and images sweep over you in the masterfully crafted trailer-much kudos thus far to the marketing team.  This film has the potential to be monumentally huge or just another curiosity grabbing for Oscar gold at Christmastime.  Will Fincher (robbed of an Oscar nod for Zodiac last year) and uber-star Pitt (robbed last year for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) finally get their due?

CAPTION:  Two Oscars please, my good man!  Oscars for me and the Finch!

Watch the trailer:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton/

Official Site:  http://www.benjaminbutton.com/

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3.  Australia  (scheduled release date:  11/14)

The Director:  Baz Luhrmann

The Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Australia!

The Scoop:  Baz the Spazz changes gears completely with this big historical epic depicting heroism and romance against the backdrop of a Japanese attack on Australia during WWII.  The trailer sells the imagery and scope of the film very well, making it look Gone with the Wind Down Under, though the frame story of Kidman telling a fairy tale to the Aborigine girl seems a bit strained (and remarkably similar to Tarsem’s The Fall.)  Luhrmann appears to have abandoned his hyper kinetic style for the dreadful sumptuousness that always seems to sell tickets during the big holidays at the end of the year.  Kidman and Jackman certainly look the parts, and lord knows they could both use a big hit.   Will critics be eager to embrace the new Luhrmann after a seven year hiatus?  More than any other film, I think critics have the chance to make or break this one.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2917663001/

Official Site:  http://www.australiamovie.com/

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4.  The Soloist  (scheduled release date:  11/21)

The Director:  Joe Wright

The Stars:  Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Jamie Foxx

The Scoop:  Brit Joe Wright atones for his period pieces by making this American set musical biopic.  Downey Jr. is back on the A-list, the director is taking on a genre held in high favor in recent years, and playing a schizophrenic musical genius seems right up Foxx’s alley.  There are no trailers or official sites yet, but I can’t wait to see what kind of tracking long shots Wright cooks up for this one–I’m picturing a shot the begins with an overhead dolly and travels down and through the crowd and orchestra at a grand concert hall.

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5.  Revolutionary Road  (scheduled release date:  12/26)

The Director:  Sam Mendes

The Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

The Scoop:  I have to admit, the plot of this one (from a novel by Richard Yates) sounds like a snore-fest:  a young couple in 1950’s Connecticut deal with problems and such.  However, Mendes has yet to make a bad film, suburban dystopia is his bread and butter (American Beauty, anyone?), and the reunion of Titanic stars Leo and Kate in a Christmastime release give this film some palpable buzz.  No trailers or official site have appeared yet. 

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Other Films of Interest:

Changeling:  10/31.  The latest from Clint Eastwood has some mixed buzz coming from its Cannes’ premier.  This 1920’s set psychological thriller about a mother who begins to doubt the identity of her young son who has been returned to her after going missing will have a hard line to tow while it tries to convince people it’s not a remake of a horror film with the same name and is instead a prestigious Oscar bid for its uber-star Angelina Jolie.

Defiance:  12/2.  Yet another WWII epic, this one is based on a true story and staring Daniel Craig.  Directed by Edward Zwick, the film of course reeks of quality, and the trailer has been getting some good buzz (at least amongst my friends and family), but it looks nobly cliched to me.  If that new Spike Lee Joint strikes a cord, this runs the risk of being overshadowed as the later release.

Watch the trailer for Defiancehttp://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2008154393/

Oh, yeah, there’s also a new James Bond flick (Craig again) idiotically entitled Quantum of Solace (11/7), and a wacky crime caper from Oscar darlings the Coen Brothers zanily called Burn After Reading (9/12) and staring, you guessed it, Brad Pitt.

Watch the Quantum of Solace trailer:  http://www.moviefone.com/movie/quantum-of-solace/26922/trailer?trailerId=2150289

Written by David H. Schleicher