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Recent Movies: Lion; Toni Erdmann; La La Land

March 12, 2017

Recent Movies


Based on a true story: In rural India in the 1980s, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a five year-old boy from a poor family. After being separated from his family in a bizarre incident, he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). During his adult life in Melbourne (portrayed by Dev Patel at this point), a flashback memory gives him the urge to find his birth family despite very difficult odds.

In the movie’s first section in India, director Garth Davis collaborates perfectly with young actor Pawar as they take the viewer down the memory lane of childhood. While Saroo’s plight is more severe than most of us have ever experienced, these early scenes can easily recall one’s own childhood experience of the vulnerability of being separate from loved ones and surrounded by strangers. In the portrayal of Saroo as a young boy, Pawar is easily loveable as he brings the perfect mix of innocence and vulnerability plus wisdom and courage beyond his years. It would be proven later that Saroo’s inner-strength was exceptional compared to other children who shared his fate.

Most of the movie’s second half has less impact than the earlier scenes. Patel’s performance is good enough but it has less depth than that of Pawar in the continuation of the main role. It’s like a relay race in which the first runner is way ahead in the race but when he passes the baton to the second runner, the team starts falling behind. It doesn’t help that Rooney Mara, who plays Saroo’s girlfriend, is equally lacking in depth. The scenes between Patel and Mara are the movie’s weakest moments.

But there are some blessings in the second half. Kidman lights up the screen every time she’s on it. Sadly though, like the Michelle Williams role in the recent “Manchester by the Sea”, Kidman’s role is too small.

The biggest saving grace for the second half is its final scene which is truly magical. There’s also a bonus in how the viewer learns how this movie got its title.

“Lion” can be placed in the same category of “Philomena” among rich films based on adopted children trying to find their biological families.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

Toni Erdmann

Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is a young German globalist consultant living in Bucharest, Romania. Her job is to assist large corporations to outsource jobs and reduce their labour costs. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is Ines’ father who is near retirement and concerned about how distant and workaholic his daughter has become. To relieve his distress, he “visits” her in Bucharest and plays pranks by showing up at Ines’ business functions dressed in a bizarre wig and claiming to be “Toni Erdmann, life coach”.

“Toni Erdmann” is yet another film where I liked the first half better than the second. The beginning section has many genuine moments of social awkwardness and it is candid about our modern times as it exposes the foils of workaholism and the deviousness of globalization. In a few scenes, director/writer Maren Ade cleverly juxtaposes the wealth of the globalist foreigners with the poor living circumstances of average Romanians. One scene amazes in showing how the poor can still be generous despite their circumstances.

The latter half is filled with buffoonery with occasional laughs (a bizarre birthday brunch was the highlight) but some of the comedy seems silly and inconsistent with the rest of the story. For example, how could “Toni” have shown up at Ines’ after-work events before she does without any indication she told him where she was going to be?

Huller gives a fine performance of a complex, inner-conflicted character. She portrays what could be called a villain: a despised, modern archetype – someone who advances her/his own career while casually destroying the livelihoods of others who are less well-off. Yet, she manages, with the help of Ade, to humanize the role without being apologetic for the career choice. The universal theme of “lost childhood” is also well portrayed here in Ines’ relationship with Winfried. We get glimpses that she used to be as prankish with him in her early years.

Overall, “Toni Erdmann” is a good film despite its flaws and its excessive length. Like the recent “Moonlight”, it is a highly acclaimed film that, for me, reaches much of its potential but not all of it.

 RATING:   * * *

La La Land

The main characters in this Los Angeles romantic musical are Mia (Emma Stone), a coffee-shop employee with dreams of being an actress; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who aspires to open his own club that plays jazz like it was played in the good old days.

At long last: a movie released during the 2016 awards season that actually lives up to the hype!

Early in the film, there are two superb group musical numbers. The numbers that follow are more low-key relating only to the main characters but they are still well performed and executed.

The stories of career struggle within the broader narrative are very believable. They include the hell of auditioning to people who are too busy plus the desire to maintain the purity of a great music genre (jazz) while too often being told it is “a dying art”.

Gosling takes a while to break into the role particularly where the singing is concerned but it’s not long before he fits into the part quite nicely. Stone is superb throughout the film. She is even spot-on as an actress giving mediocre auditions. She’s given a full range – and not just as a triple threat – and she fully lives up to the expectations especially during the song “Audition” near the end.

There is something uniquely enjoyable about Hollywood portraying itself. The movie also gives nods to great classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” all the while being unique and standing out on its own. In addition, the set designs and photography add further to the film’s greatness.

The reference to “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” comes through strongly in the movie’s final number. This scene is probably the best scene of any movie in 2016. It leaves one with so many mixed emotions and extreme on either side. The production number is magnificent while its mood is melancholy.

The teaming of director/writer Damien Chazelle with musical composer Justin Hurwitz is one of the best matches since Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand in the 1960s.

RATING:   * * * ½


1)       Directing by Damien Chazelle

2)      Acting by Emma Stone

3)      Music by Justin Hurwitz


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One Comment
  1. Greg permalink

    Hey Dennis. I completely concur with you about La La Land. A gorgeous, fantastical work of art. Moving, beautiful, everyone involved at their best. It should have won Best Picture over Moonlight without question, hands down. One of those bafflements like when Brokeback did not win. Politics, sentiment of the moment.
    I want to wish you a Happy Belated Birthday. I only realized it a couple days after the date. Hope it was a good one and filled with celluloid dreams. XOXO Greg.

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