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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a movie you particularly want to see (for example, Logan), sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film you think you ought to see (for example, Moonlight, which I’m expecting to see this week), and sometimes you go to the cinema just because you fancy going to the cinema, not least because the pub next door does a good Sunday lunch (and a good job it was next door, given the horrendous torrential rain and hailstorms we had to put up with today). So it was that I ended up seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, yet more evidence that British film-makers (and, presumably, audiences) are endlessly fascinated by India, both historical and modern. This is a film with a rather anodyne title, belying the fact it deals with some reasonably heavy material.

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The main thrust of the story is focused on Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), nephew of the last Tsar, cousin of the Queen, war hero, and all around good egg. As things get underway Mountbatten is flying to India to take up the post of viceroy and oversee the transition to local rule. With him is his wife (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter (Pamela Travers). Mountbatten is a little upset because he had been hoping to go to Florida and become the (wait for it) Miami viceroy (ha! ha! oh, my sides).

The path to Indian independence is set to be a rocky one, given the cultural and religious divisions that the British have stoked up (one character observes that British Imperial policy seems to be divide-and-conquer, then divide-and-leave), and the country’s Muslim minority, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are agitating for their own state, Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh majority, led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), are set against this, and violence between adherents of the different faiths looms. Luckily, the Mountbattens have no time for this kind of intolerance, and indeed they happily include members of all religions amongst the legions of servants who wait on them hand-and-foot within the viceroy’s house (come on, guys, it’s more like a palace).

Now, you can’t these days make a film about the partition of India which is told solely from the point of view of upper-class Brits, and so the local side of the story is represented by the tale of young lovers Aalia and Jeet, played by Huma Qureshi and Manish Dayal (I guess Dev Patel must have been busy making Lion). She is a Muslim, he is a Hindu, and quite apart from the fact that she’s engaged to someone else, the difference in their religions is bound to cause them trouble.

All right, so there’s some interesting historical material here, but Viceroy’s House cops out of addressing it with any genuine rigour. ‘History is written by the victors’ is the first line of the film, which it goes on to disprove by depriving the Indians who won independence for their country of any meaningful role in the story. Even the terms of reference are suspect: ‘the British have been in India for three hundred years’ a caption informs us, making it sound rather like they’ve been enjoying an extended backpacking holiday rather than engaging in a military occupation. ‘You’re giving a nation back to its people!’ Mountbatten is told, the question of who actually took it away from them in the first place being rather skipped over. The British decision to leave is presented as an act of magnanimity, or possibly a consequence of the sacrifices made during the Second World War, rather than anything to do with the Indian independence movement.

Instead, we just get Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who are both thoroughly decent, working their absolute hardest to see the Indian people get the best possible treatment in a thoroughly inclusive way – Lady Mountbatten sacks her secretary for being a bit racist, then announces there will be more local food on the menu at official engagements from now on. (‘I spend all my life learning to make European food, and now she asks me for curry!’ cries the sous chef, periphrastically.) We are practically instructed to like these people, and feel for them when it all threatens to get a bit too much and their upper lips go a bit wobbly. (The last film I saw which went on about stiff upper lips as much as this one was Carry On Up the Khyber, not the kind of association I suspect the makers of Viceroy’s House were aiming for.)

The political aspect is not gone into in any depth, and even while watching the film you’re aware that complex historical matters are being whizzed through in a pretty facile way. The film’s overall position seems to be that partition was something of a historical tragedy (good luck on getting your film released in Islamabad!), brought about by devious British geo-political machinations, but even here it is painstaking in expunging the Mountbattens of any blame (like that really matters). There’s some strong stuff here (the man given about a month to decide on the border between India and Pakistan, played here by Simon Callow, had never set foot in India before, for instance) but it is not explored in any real detail.

Rather than this, the film opts to follow the Jeet-Aalia romance, which – in true Bollywood style – largely consists of long, longing looks, and the odd dance routine. To say this plotline is chocolate-boxey doesn’t begin to do justice to just how hackneyed and sentimental it seems, redeemed only partly by a fine performance from the late Om Puri as Aalia’s father. By the end of the film it has simply become cheesy, and almost absurdly so.

I was in the restroom after the film, attending to some pressing personal business, when I overheard a couple of other people discussing Viceroy’s House. ‘Very sanitised,’ said one of them, cheerily. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘but then as soon as I saw the director’s name I understood why, ha ha.’ I would love to think this was a reference to Chadha’s track record making fairly soft-centred crowd-pleasers such as Bend It Like Beckham, but I fear it was not the case. You still can’t beat a little casual racism, it seems, even when it doesn’t actually make sense – for while Viceroy’s House is indeed a true-story film which has had all the chewy historical bits sieved out of it, the real beneficiaries of this are the British characters, not the Indian ones.

There are a lot of good actors doing their best in Viceroy’s House, and the script does contain many amusing and interesting moments, and I can imagine this film will do rather well with audiences looking for a mixture of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown. I do think, though, that it’s trying much too hard to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, because the history at the heart of the story is grossly short-changed and over-simplified as a result. It is a hard film to dislike, but I’m not sure that means you shouldn’t try.

 

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Your career progression used to be fairly straightforward as a Hollywood movie star, up until relatively recently anyway. You started off doing small films, maybe genre pieces, and gradually worked your way up until your name was over the title and you were suddenly a serious performer to be reckoned with, doing major films for mainstream audiences. Things are a bit different these days, of course, because (as I have noted in the past) the main career benefit an actor receives for winning an acting Oscar these days is to almost instantly be offered a leading role in a knockabout special effects movie. Recent beneficiaries of this include Felicity Jones (recently seen in a Dan Brown adaptation and a stellar conflict franchise installment) and Brie Larson (soon to be seen in the new King Kong film and also playing Captain Marvel for, um, Marvel Studios).

Even older performers can benefit from this effect, with occasionally surreal consequences: Michael Keaton, for instance, has been an actor in demand since he made Birdman (a film which itself might appear to be satirising the current trend for serious actors to appear in superhero movies), but someone somewhere is surely having a laugh – Keaton’s big film this year is set to be Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which he plays the Vulture, a character who is basically a… well, work it out for yourselves. Still, at least the fellow seems to be making the most of his current popularity, for he was not half bad in Spotlight last year, nor is his performance in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder anything less than impressive.

thefounder

Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling fifty-something salesman in the US. The year is 1954, and Kroc is somewhat sick of the low quality of the restaurants he constantly encounters in his line of work. Then he encounters the curious case of a small family-run restaurant in San Bernardino, California, which offers superb service and fantastic food in a family-friendly environment. Kroc instantly sees the potential for this business model to be duplicated across the country – across the world, even – and makes his pitch to the owners. They are a pair of brothers, and their names are Maurice and Richard McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). But the brothers are dubious, not to mention the banks and nearly everyone else who hears of Kroc’s scheme – a chain of burger restaurants all called McDonald’s? What are the chances of that happening?

Hancock’s last movie was Saving Mr Banks, which was a classy piece of work somewhat compromised by the fact it was clearly in part a brazen advertisement for the Disney Corporation, and my first thought upon hearing about The Founder was that something similar might be in the works here – monster corporations with $37 billion in assets are not usually in the habit of letting people make unflattering movies about them, after all. Like many people I am instinctively suspicious of McDonald’s, mainly because of the relentless attempts to brand the chain as innately wholesome and fun (not that this stopped me eating there at least once a week when I lived in Japan). The last thing the world needs, I would argue, is a two-hour-long commercial for McDonald’s – this movie was made on a $7 million budget, which second-for-second may possibly be less than some actual McDonald’s commercials.

Nevertheless, one thing the film makes clear is the sheer impact that McDonald’s has had on the way we lead our lives today, even if Thomas Friedman’s theory of McDonald’s-based international relations (the idea that no two countries with a branch of McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other) has turned to be not strictly true. McDonald’s may not be important in the way that philosophy or music or literature is important, but it is at least significant and worthy of attention.

And, as it turns out, the film isn’t about McDonalds as an entity as much as it is about Ray Kroc as an individual. Quite how relevant the story of a ruthless property developer who rises to astonishing power and wealth relatively late in life is to the world today, I leave to you to decide, but Keaton is never less than magnetic in the role – which is just as well, as this is by no means a hagiography. The title of the film itself is ironic – Kroc styles himself as the founder of McDonald’s, but is of course nothing of the sort – and while Kroc is initially a relatively sympathetic underdog, as the story progresses he becomes a considerably more ambiguous figure. The conclusion of the film deals with some breathtakingly ruthless maneuvers carried out by Kroc against some sympathetic characters, by which point it is clear his success has brought out some hidden streak of monstrousness in his character.

Given this is the case, there’s no question of the film being nothing more than an advert for a fast food chain, even if at one point a parallel is specifically drawn between branches of McDonald’s and churches. This kind of ambiguity persists throughout the film – is Kroc an American hero or villain? Is his corporation a success story to be emulated, or just another example of capitalism gone berserk? – which in the same way can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it’s a quirky indie comedy-drama or a major mainstream release.

Nevertheless, The Founder is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film that sheds some light on things that it never occurred to me that I didn’t know. The narrative is fascinating, but the story is really given life and energy by the performances – primarily Keaton, of course, but he’s given tremendous support by Nick Offerman, and also Laura Dern as his long-suffering wife. But this is a film with few obvious weaknesses, even if some may be put off by the subject matter. Some may find its refusal to take sides simply annoying, while to others they may be key to its appeal – but for me, this is a fascinating story, told superbly. This is a very good movie.

 

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There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson’s film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.

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The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.

Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?

Well, if you don’t want to know how it all ends, don’t look on Wikipedia, that’s all I can say (or David Irving’s own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator’s psyche). ‘Based on a true story’-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.

And yet you could argue that’s just what has happened (and, sure enough, Irving has been claiming this himself), for Timothy Spall’s striking, mannered performance as David Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced’ representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It’s just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.

Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I’ve just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)

You should never be short on drama if you do a courtroom-based story properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.

Rampton’s courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.

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What is going on with movies these days? I am quite as comfortable not having my emotions unnecessarily perturbed as any other man on the cusp of middle-age who is more-or-less resigned to his place on the Asperger’s spectrum, but it seems like I can’t sit down to watch a movie these days without feeling a sudden rush of, well, feeling, sometimes to the point where I actually start, you know, actually emoting in the theatre itself. Is it my age? Am I coming down with Bendii Syndrome? Or is it just something about the films at the moment? It’s a poser.

Hey ho. The latest culprit is also the first major ‘based on a true story’ film I’ve seen this year (not sure that Silence strictly counts, and virtually certain that xXx: Return of Xander Cage doesn’t), Garth Davis’s Lion. This is a film based around story elements with which I feel no particular connection – Indian social services, international adoption agencies, hotel management, Google Earth – but, as someone I was talking to just the other day suggested, that which is most personal is also most universal, which may explain how it managed to bypass my defences so neatly.

lion

Things kick off in India’s Khandwa region in 1986, where we encounter five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who is living in extreme poverty with his mother and siblings. Nevertheless he is happy, until one night when he and his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) head off by rail to do a little casual labour. They are separated and Saroo ends up on the wrong train; two days later he arrives in Calcutta, 1500 miles away.

Saroo only speaks Hindi and the primary language in Calcutta is Bengali; also, no-one seems to recognise the name of his home. The child ends up living on the streets, only narrowly escaping all kinds of grim fates, and finally the authorities place him in a care home, which is really more like a rather brutal prison for children. And from here he is adopted by an affluent Tasmanian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Twenty years pass and Saroo grows up into a strapping young hotel management student (he is now played by Dev Patel, who does indeed look appropriately leonine), embarked upon a relationship with fellow trainee Lucy (Rooney Mara). Then a meal at the home of a friend from India sparks all kinds of memories, and someone casually suggests Saroo could work out roughly where his train odyssey began and use the then-new Google Earth to identify the station and backtrack from there to his actual home.

He dismisses the idea, but a seed has been planted, and it quickly turns into an obsession for him, as memories of his brother and mother resurface. Saroo becomes isolated from both his family and his partner as this seemingly-hopeless quest takes over his life. (And if you can’t guess how it all ends, I’m rather surprised.)

Got to say, I was rather dubious about this one when I first heard of it, because it just seemed like another attempt to channel that same sort of heartwarming subcontinental vibe as – apologies, but it’s inevitable – Slumdog Millionaire, while at the same time doing its bit to boost the share price of Google. I feel obliged to mention that my experiences watching films where Dev Patel plays a hotel manager have also been not entirely satisfying, either.

And the first two things at least do have at least a little bit of validity to them, in that the film can’t help but touch on some of the same topics as Danny Boyle’s big hit, and the Google logo does prominently feature throughout the second half of the film. Nevertheless, both of these things seem to happen only because they’re an intrinsic part of the story the film sets out to tell, rather than because of any other agenda on the part of the film-makers.

This is sort of a film of two halves, in that the first, quite-lengthy, non-Anglophonic section featuring Saroo’s travails as a small child lost in Calcutta is a very different proposition to the rest of the film featuring him as an adult. The fact that the opening is focused on a five-year-old boy, often in significant peril, inevitably makes it feel just a little bit manipulative, plus I suppose the setting and the fact it’s all in Hindi or Bengali also have a certain distancing effect. Speaking as a person of privilege from the First World, I found the story a bit easier to engage with once the setting and language became a little more familiar (and the film does address the issue of the gulf between these two worlds).

I suppose there’s a slight problem here in that this latter part of the film is short on what you’d call actual incident – the scriptwriter has spoken of the problem of ‘screens on screen’, and the perceived problems involved in stories largely revolving around people looking at computer peripherals. They have a good crack at making Saroo’s personal issues significant enough to influence the story – there’s the strain on his relationship with Lucy, plus the fact that he has a brother, also adopted from India, whose personal problems are of a different magnitude than his.

But it all really works, mainly because the performances are so strong. Wenham and Mara possibly don’t get quite the material they deserve, but Dev Patel gets a chance to do more than recycle his ‘lovably plucky young chap’ performance, and portray someone with some real angst and conflict going on. Nicole Kidman is also in more of a secondary role than you might expect, and her performance is very understated, but nevertheless highly effective – there’s one scene in particular where she talks quietly about the choices she has made in her life, and her hopes for her sons, and it’s one of those gut-punches of sheer human decency it’s almost impossible to resist.

The same can be said for most of the conclusion of the film, which articulates most clearly its themes of finding home and a connection to your family. You know more or less how this will play out. You know what’s going to happen. And yet, when it does, the sincerity of the film and the strength of the performances are enough to bypass your rational brain – if you’re anything like me, anyway – and the result is, well, as profoundly emotional as anything I’ve seen on screen in a long while.

Lion is the kind of film which in a normal year might sneak a couple of minor Oscars, but this year – I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s quite a movie of the very first rank, but it’s still skilfully made, with very impressive performances, and worth watching if you like a proper human interest drama. Other people may not take so kindly to having their emotions interfered with – but the fact remains that if you’re not deeply moved by the last few scenes of this film, there’s quite probably something organically wrong with you.

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Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.

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Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.

 

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Like many other people, I have been keeping half an eye on the BBC’s latest wildlife extravaganza, Beneath the Planet of the Earth, and the privations of the people who spend six months up trees waiting for sloths to get jiggy never fail to impress me. And, also like many other people, I suspect, I do occasionally find myself wondering: do they ever get the urge to, you know, assist real life a bit? Tell the lions where the baby giraffes are? Or, conversely, give the poor dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert hippo a crafty trough of lemonade between takes? Documentarians are only human, after all.

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This was brought rather forcibly home to me by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita, undoubtedly this year’s leading documentary about the Afghan hip-hop scene. Centre stage throughout is Sonita Alizadeh, who as things get underway is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran, dreaming of her future as a musical superstar. This consists of her sellotaping pictures of her own face onto magazine photos of Rihanna and rapping to her schoolmates at the refugee centre she attends. (She appears to be rapping about scratchcards, but it’s still one of the top ten best Afghan-language hip-hop numbers I’ve ever heard.)

Sonita and her mate Ahmad are doggedly attempting to launch some sort of musical career in Tehran despite the lukewarm response of the industry professionals they meet and the numerous problems facing a young female refugee wanting to record American-style music in Iran. Things do not look rosy. However, they get even worse when news arrives from the rest of the family back in Afghanistan: her elder brother wants to get married, for which he will need $9000 to pay the bride-price on his intended. To raise the money, Sonita’s mum has decided to realise one of the family’s assets: by marrying Sonita off to a stranger, and receiving a hefty financial sum in return.

This is, if you will, the film’s hippo in the desert moment, summed up by a moment in which Sonita looks forlornly at the camera and asks Ghaemmaghami if she can’t stump up some cash of her own, effectively buying Sonita’s freedom from the demands of her family. There is a long pause and the director gently tries to explain that it is not her role to involve herself in Sonita’s life that way.

Many discussions ensue between the refugee centre boss and Sonita’s alarming mother, followed by an extraordinary sequence in which Ghaemmaghami, the centre boss, the cameraman, and the boom operator heatedly discuss exactly what their responsibilities are towards Sonita and whether they should pony up for what is effectively blackmail by her mother: two grand will buy Sonita another six months of life in Tehran.

In the end a caption reveals that the film-makers decided to pay the $2000. From this point on the film is effectively dead in the water as a conventional documentary, but remains weirdly compelling viewing anyway: Sonita persuades the crew to film a pop video of her performing a number about bride-selling, which they then put on YouTube. As a result, she gets offered a scholarship to a school in Utah, but this involves a frankly hair-raising gamble: Sonita has to return to Afghanistan, from where she may not be able to leave again, and secure the necessary travel documents without her family finding out. It’s very clear throughout that the director is basically egging Sonita on, utterly disregarding the concerns of her family, and possibly even Sonita’s safety. The code of ethics of (utterly non-)professional film critics prevents me from revealing how it all turns out (look on Wikipedia if you really must know), but many members of the audience at the screening I attended – primarily the young, American ones – were literally weeping as the film ended. Hmmm.

I mean, it’s not as if Sonita Alizadeh isn’t a winning screen presence: she’s as engagingly stroppy and self-obsessed as any western teenage girl, and, as far as I can tell, which is obviously not very far at all, she does have some genuine talent as a writer and performer – but the problem is that the film’s openness about how involved the crew were in shaping its events really makes you doubt and question the whole thing.

Even before the bit with the cash, I was slightly unsure this wasn’t some bizarre Chris Morris-esque spoof of right-on documentaries, played absolutely deadpan: there’s a scene in which a pair of stony-faced social workers get Sonita to use her classmates to recreate scenes of her family’s escape from the Taliban. Other bits just feel staged: at one point Sonita has to pop off down the benefits office to ask for an advance on that month’s money, and the scene is filmed from within the office itself, indicating the people there are complicit in having the documentary crew around. The same is true of a discussion of Sonita’s fate between her mum and the refugee centre boss – if this is a genuine conversation of such import, what the hell is a camera crew doing there? Even the subtitles to Sonita’s lyrics rhyme suspiciously well, given she’s supposedly singing in a foreign language.

In short, the impartiality of this documentary felt deeply suspect from very early on, and the questionable element is by no means limited to the director’s involvement in shaping the subject’s future. The axe that the film is grinding is a noble axe, a justified axe, an axe that I am broadly very sympathetic to myself. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a film with an axe to grind, and the clear intention of presenting Sonita as a sort of hip-hop version of Malala Yousafzai (or possibly Ms Dynamite, albeit with a background containing genuine explosives).

This probably isn’t the place to rake over my own first-hand experiences with the partly quaint but mostly just brutal match-making practices of central Asia – suffice to say that the traditions which the film (and Sonita) rail against so effectively are certainly not fictitious and still have the capacity to ruin the lives of young women. But how we deal with this subject is a complex and difficult topic which is not especially well-served by a film which is so obviously partisan on the issues involved (one completely unconnected scene, early on, has a young woman with a black eye being assured that ‘your brother says it won’t happen again’ – we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what’s been going on). Are we so utterly self-assured when it comes to the righteousness of our own principles that we are prepared to casually disregard and obliterate the traditions of Afghan culture? Isn’t the film basically presenting a very particular form of Americanism as the one true way forward? There is some troubling stuff here.

That said, what were they supposed to do? Let Sonita be dragged off to – essentially – domestic slavery as a drudge for a total stranger? I suspect I probably would have done the same in the film-makers’ position. I can’t argue with their choices, but they do colour the film and get in the way of it having the effect they no doubt intended. As a result, while Sonita is mesmerising to watch, it isn’t always for the best of reasons, and – in a very rare occurence – I am somewhat at a loss to say what actual merit it has as a film. It’s agitprop more than genuine documentary, and embedded agitprop at that. But at least it’s honest about its intentions, and constantly watchable as a result. Interesting soundtrack, too, obviously.

 

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