A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.



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Doing Your Own Stunts

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In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.



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Divining the Truth about War

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The scene opens on a man, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe), traversing the hot arid plain of Australia’s Outback. The camera looks down from above, almost as if it were the face of God. He carries two small metal rods in front of him, holding them gently and respectfully, as he might hold the reins of a pair of fine horses, giving them their head. Suddenly the rods cross. X marks the spot. He throws down his tools and begins to dig.

It is backbreaking work. We know from the change in his clothing that it takes many days. But he never gives up. He knows the water is down there; the rods told him so. He just has to keep digging. And sure enough, the water finally begins to gush. He exults at the sky as the water reaches his face, almost as a baptism. He has found water in the midst of a vast desert, just by trusting his gift for divination.

Arriving home, he finds his wife Lizzie (Jacqueline McKenzie) busy cleaning the boots of one of their sons. “They’re waiting for their story,” she tells him, nodding toward the bedroom of their three boys. “Not tonight,” he pleads. “I’m bone tired.” But she insists. “It’s their favorite part of the day.” The camera stays on her as we hear him read a magical tale from the Arabian Nights. The camera peers over his shoulder at the story’s illustration, then pans out.

How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

But the beds are empty. There are no blankets on the striped ticking of the mattresses. These boys have been gone for a long time. They fought at Gallipoli. “May you outlive your children” may sound like a blessing, but it is the greatest curse any parent can know.

Moments like this abound in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, his first film as a director and a stunning piece of work. It is a film so filled with passion and pathos, elegant cinematography and quotable lines, that you just know — this is the film Crowe has held in his heart through all the years of making other people’s films. It is his paean to the Aussies and Kiwis who joined the ANZAC forces to fight the Turks during World War I while simultaneously offering a heartbreaking protest against war. As we watch him send his fine sons off to war in a flashback scene, calling out to the oldest, “Keep your brothers safe!”, we can’t help of Wilfred Owen’s ironic and contemptuous poem about the sufferings of soldiers in WWI: “Dulce et Decorum Est” — “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” No, it is neither sweet nor fitting. It is horrifying. How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

“You can find water, but you can’t find your own sons,” Lizzie accuses Connor wretchedly, and so he heads off to Gallipoli to find his sons’ bodies and bring them home. Along the way he stays at the inn of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whose Turkish husband was killed in the war and meets the Turkish commander (Yilmaz Erdogan) who oversaw the ANZAC defeat at Gallipoli — his sons’ defeat — and has now returned to help the victors find and bury their dead. One Turk says to a British soldier, when asked what he did before the war, “I was an architect.” The Brit replies, “I was a civil engineer.” Enmity turns to respect as they come to know each other, and aThomas Hardy poem comes to mind — “The Man He Killed”:

Had he and I but met
     By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
     Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
     Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
     No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
     You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
     Or help to half-a-crown.

Despite the excruciating sadness of its subject, The Water Diviner is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in recent years. The powerful love of a father for his sons is demonstrated in the flashbacks and mingles with the terrible guilt he feels as he realizes what he has unwittingly done to them by proudly sending them off to war. The cinematography is lush and creative, the music poignant, and the script is so carefully crafted that it reminds me of an Oscar Wilde play, full of pithy, quotable truths. This a film you will be glad you saw.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe. Hopscotch Features, Fear of God Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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A Totally Fracked Planet

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For several years, in these pages and elsewhere, I have noted America’s steady progress toward true energy independence — not because of government help but in spite of it.

We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology.

I have not reported on recent developments on fracking progress abroad. A couple of recent articles provide interesting food for geopolitical thought.

First, the report out of Aussie Land of a shale oil field with the promise of prodigious production. The Arckaringa Basin field in South Australia is now being explored by seismic mapping and drilling. The field has between 3.5 billion and a mind-blowing 233 billion barrels of oil (BBO). Even at the lower end of the estimate, it would be on a par with our own shale oil production.

But if the field contains anything like the upper end of the estimate, it would be a geopolitical game changer, with a value, at current prices, of about $20 trillion, which would make Australians among the richest people on earth. This would be several times more than Australia’s current proven reserves of oil, and would turn the country into an oil exporter on a par with Saudi Arabia (with estimated reserves of 263 BBO, or billion barrels of oil) and surpassing Venezuela (211 BBO), Canada (175 BBO), Iran (137 BBO) and Iraq (115 BBO).

Here is both good news and bad news, geopolitically. The good news is that Australia is a long-standing close American ally, so the prospect of its becoming a major exporter (instead of a minor importer) of petroleum means lower prices for us and another source of world oil that is favorable to us (unlike Iran, Venezuela, and to some degree Saudi Arabia).

The bad news is that Australia now becomes a possible target for energy-hungry China, which is growing rapidly in military might and economic size (in fact, it just surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trading economy, holding $1.2 trillion in American assets).

The second report is a Wall Street Journal article about the shale gas boom in Eastern Europe. The pace of exploration in Central and Eastern Europe has exploded, with British/Dutch-owned Royal Dutch Shell, American-owned ConocoPhillips, and French-owned Total SA buying up exploration rights in Poland. Poland is sitting on top of shale natural gas reserves equal to 35-65 years of its current consumption.

Ukraine is also blessed with shale-gas reserves. Chevron, TNK-BP (a joint venture of BP and a group of Russian investors), and Eni (an Italian company), are all vying to develop shale gas there.

Environmentalist groups in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Romania have gotten their governments to put a moratorium on fracking (which American environmentalists are pushing for too). That opposition, together with the higher costs of drilling in Europe (in part because deposits lie deeper there) and the fact that contracts with Russia’s Gazprom are locked in for decades, make development go more slowly.

But the long-term geopolitical prospect is that Central and Eastern Europe — once enslaved by the Soviet regime, now bullied by Putin’s quasi-dictatorship — now have it within their power to free themselves, eventually, from energy dependency on Russia.

Fracking is leading to some interesting geopolitics. One hopes it will lead to some productive politics, right here at home.




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