Thursday, 16 February 2017


I just managed to catch a showing of Lion before it left the cinemas. What an unbelievable and overwhelming film.

Lion follows the true story of Saroo Brierley, born in India but raised from a young age in Tasmania. Saroo, who lived with his mother and brother (Guddu) and sister (Shekila) in a small Indian village, boards a train one day and is accidentally taken thousands of kilometres away to Calcutta. Too young to find his way back home, Saroo lives on the dangerous streets of Calcutta until he is eventually adopted by an Australian family and moves to Tasmania. Twenty years later, he begins to search for his home village and his mother and brother, using Google Earth. This is one of those stories, like Schindler’s List, where you can’t quite believe that all of this really happened to one person, where a true story is so extraordinary, it just had to be brought to the big screen.

There is so much to praise about Lion. I am by no means the first person to comment on the astonishing performance of Sunny Pawar as young Saroo. Sunny breaks your heart over and over again as he loses his mother and brother and is threatened with danger and abuse as a street-child in India. You will be hard set to find a more natural and believable performance from an actor this year, let alone one under the age of 10. Sunny is so good he somewhat overshadows the wonderful Dev Patel, who is brilliantly understated as adult Saroo. Nicole Kidman is also - unsurprisingly – a wonder to watch as Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue.

As you would expect, a film that is set half in India and half in Australia is full of beautiful scenery and amazing landscapes. The director, Garth Davis, cleverly highlights both the stark differences between these two countries, in particular the affluence of Australia compared with the often-extreme poverty of India, but also the similarities of the two landscapes, Saroo’s two homes.

Although the plot of this film can be summarised quite simply, in fact it is a very complex and emotive story. Patel and Kidman in particular portray excellently the complicated web of emotions that comes with adopting a child with a difficult past. This is also shown in the heart-breaking performances of both Keshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa as Saroo’s adoptive Indian brother, Mantosh (child and adult) whose transition from India to Australia is far harder than Saroo’s.   

In addition to this amazing story, Lion offers many small and affecting tales that intersperse with Saroo’s journey. It doesn’t hold back in showing you the horrendous circumstances in which thousands of lost and homeless children in India found themselves in the 1980s and still find themselves today.  

That said, Lion is a fundamentally hopeful and positive movie whose main message is of the unconditional love shared by family members. Lion is also a wonderful example of the fact that, it isn’t necessarily a blood-tie that makes someone family. My favourite scene in the film is where Sue Brierley explains to Saroo why she and her husband, John, chose to adopt two sons from India, rather than have biological children. Sue is as much Saroo’s mother as Kamla is, as is Mantosh as much Saroo’s brother as Guddu. A moving film with a great message, Lion receives many thumbs up from me.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the eighth and final Harry Potter film, hit the big screen, we return to JK Rowling’s magical world of witchcraft and wizardry with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Although set in the same universe as the Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts is set in 1920s New York, some 70 years before Harry defeated Voldemort at the battle of Hogwarts. Hogwarts-expellee, New Scamander, arrives at the beginning of the film in Manhattan with a suitcase full of magical beasts who do not want to stay cooped up for long. Unfortunately, tensions between the magical and non-magical world are rising high with the looming threat of Grindelwald and anything that poses a risk of exposing the magical community is unwelcome in New York. The first of potentially five movies, this looks to be the beginning of a fantastical new franchise.  

Directed by David Yates (who brought us the four last -and best- Harry Potter movies) and written by JK Rowling herself, Fantastic Beasts has very cleverly and successfully created a world and a story that feel both familiar and completely new at the same time. Whilst we are presented with a new protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a new set of characters, a new city and a new magical authority, this film isn’t completely devoid of links to Harry’s story. Newt is the author of Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (hence the film’s name) and we also hear such familiar names as Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts and Gellert Grindelwald being bandied about. Yates’ familiar handprint is on this film in the look of the beasts, the movement of the wands and the feel of the magic. Yet the new setting and different, grown-up protagonists, together with the completely fresh and new story prevent us as an audience feeling like we’ve seen it all before.
Yates has done an amazing job of turning Watford, London into 1920’s New York. The setting of this film feels not only real but, what’s more, it feels alive. Yates achieves this most notably in two ways. Firstly, in the incredible attention to detail presented in Fantastic Beasts. Everything you are looking at is deliberate and almost every scene has something magical and wonderful tucked away in the background for those who are looking carefully: from the mouse memos to the sky-ceiling in the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) building.   

Secondly, Yates brings the world to life with the almost constant movement of the camera. As No-Maj (or Muggle, as we call them in the UK) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) explores the TARDIS-like world full of fantastic beasts inside New Scamander’s briefcase, we explore with him, the camera roaming around like an inquisitive visitor.   

Of course, no franchise would be complete without a great lead. Eddie Redmayne perfectly encapsulates what Newt should be: socially-awkward, shy, kind and full of wonder and empathy. Redmayne has demonstrated in recent years what an amazing actor he is (nominated two years in a row for the best actor Oscar and winning the award for The Theory of Everything). In this film, as he did when portraying Stephen Hawking, he demonstrates what an amazingly physical actor he is, altering his entire physicality for the role. Most noticeable perhaps is the way he moves his face when speaking with members of his own race, never looking them directly in the eye and demonstrating a discomfort that disappears when he interacts with his beasts. Perhaps more subtle however is the very deliberate way he walks, the manner in which he moves his legs and feet with each step. If you pay attention, you will see that he widens his toes when stepping to minimise noise, as one would when approaching a wild animal. 

This movie isn’t carried by Redmayne alone however. Each member of the central supporting cast is very watchable and has a strong screen presence. Accompanying Newt as he rescues his beasts are Dan Fogler as Kowalski and Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as witch sisters, Tina and Queenie. Each of these actors lights up the screen with their warming presence – as one would want in what is essentially a children’s film- and Fogler and Waterston in particular have the amazing ability to portray complex thoughts and feelings through simple facial movements. 

Setting a darker tone in Fantastic Beasts are the formidable villains: Samantha Morton as second Salemer and wannabe witch-hunter, Mary Lou, and dodgy MACUSA official, Mr Graves, played by the charismatic Colin Farrell. Both of these well-established British actors will send chills down your spine, commanding your attention each time they are on screen.

But what is the best thing about this film? Well, unless you have some cruel friends who’ve spoilt it for you or you’ve spent too much time searching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on the internet, you will have no idea where this film is going or how it will end. That is something the original Potter films could never never do (for those of us sane persons who had read the books).
I greatly enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and cannot wait to see where J.K. Rowling takes us with this new franchise. Now who wants to buy me a niffler?

Monday, 27 June 2016

How much I love Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Japan

I just watched the new feature film by Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, a beautiful film, both visually and in the story that it tells. This wonderful movie reminded me just how much I love Studio Ghibli, the greatest animation studio in film today as far as I am concerned and it made me want to write about how much I love their films.

Based on Joan G. Robinson's book of the same name, When Marnie Was There follows the life of 12 year old Anna during a summer trip to stay with family by the sea. Anna is an introverted, lonely child who suffers from Asthma and her foster mother thinks the sea air will do her good. Whilst staying with her family, Anna meets the mysterious Marnie, who lives in a mansion by the water. The mansion appears at times to be desolate and abandoned and at times to be bustling with life and fancy parties. Anna's uncle tells her the building is haunted. Is Marnie a ghost? Is she a figment of Anna's imagination? Or is she in fact another lonely little girl in need of a friend. Whatever she is, she brings Anna out of her shell.

This is a truly moving film, stunningly depicted through Studio Ghibli's unique hand-drawn style. The visuals are stunning and so clearly lovingly and painstakingly done to ensure that every scene is full of life and soul. Anna and Marnie's relationship is uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. Of all of Ghibli's films that I have seen, I think that this delves deepest into the emotions and humanity of its characters. I would recommend it to anyone! When Marnie Was There proves that the film-makers at Studio Ghibli still have wonderful and amazing things to offer us and makes their financial difficulties all the more worrying.

If you aren't too familiar yet with Studio Ghibli's work, they have made many stunning films. I would recommend starting with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, as well as the magical Howl's Moving Castle and the powerful Princess Mononoke. If you're wondering where their logo comes from, it shows Totoro from the beautiful My Neighbour Totoro, a brilliant children's film that all ages can enjoy. And if you're ever so lucky to go to Tokyo, I recommend a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka (above), a weird and wonderful museum.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

 X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun, action-packed super-hero film and I'm not sure why all the reviews have been so sniffy. No, it's not perfect! It's not as good as X-Men, X-Men 2, First Class or Days of Future Past, which are all very good super hero movies. That said, it's better than X-Men 3 (granted, that's not too difficult) and, in my opinion, both the Wolverine films.

Apocalypse is set in the 80s and follows the younger versions of the X-Men after the events of Days of Future Past.  Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters has been growing and has a number of new (but not unknown) additions, including Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). And of course there are the old familiar faces, Professor X, Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven aka Mystique (the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence), bringing together the next generation of mutants.

The new threat to Xavier's team of X-Men comes from Oscar Isaac's Apocalypse. An ancient mutant deity who has been resting in a tomb in Egypt for a couple of thousand years and who has now been awoken to take his place as the ruler of a new and better world. Apocalypse (as his name suggests) is always accompanied by four loyal horsemen and this time around that includes including Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and a recently bereaved Eric Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender).  The new generation of X-Men must work together to defeat Apocalypse  and stop him from destroying the world as we know it to "build a better one".

X-Men: Apocalypse definitely isn't without its flaws.  After all the time travel and re-writing of the X-Men story-line in Days of Future Past, it is inherently a bit confusing. Considering that First Class (the first outing for McAvoy and Fassbender's X-Men) was set during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, some of our heroes have aged incredibly and unrealistically well (except Mystique of course, whose powers mean she ages very slowly).  I will also concede that the script can be very corny at times, but then, this is a super hero movie. It's about selfless individuals battling evil and risking their lives. When aren't these films a little bit corny? Don't we all remember Gary Oldman's final speech in The Dark Knight?

I do believe that the positives in this film sharply outweigh the negatives. To start with, what a cast! Finding actors who could hold a candle to Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Rebecca Romijn and Halle Berry is no small feat. McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence are on form as always, although I do feel that there could have been more blue Mystique and more of her kicking ass with her awesome gymnastic skills. There is more of the amazing Evan Peters' Quicksilver in this film, who felt so under-used in Days of Future Past. Sophie Turner does a good job as the new Jean Grey and I look forward to seeing a bit more of the new Storm and Cyclops. As for Apocalypse… OK, I love Oscar Isaac, but perhaps he wasn't the most exciting villain. Isaac does a good job of being creepy and evil, but at the end of the day, Apocalypse doesn't really do much in this film.

There are some very cool effects and fight scenes in this film. As in Days of Future Past, one of the most visually impressive moments in the film is the scene in which Quicksilver gets to show off his speedy skills when saving the students of Xavier's academy from an explosion. Not quite as captivating as the scene in the Pentagon's kitchen in Days of Future Past but still pretty amazing. The final battle between Apocalypse and his horsemen and the X-Men provides a good display of all the cool powers at play, with Xavier, Magneto, Cyclops, Storm, Quicksilver, Jean Grey, Angel, Nightcrawler and of course, Apocalypse, battling it out for the fate of the world. That said and as above, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that Mystique, clearly one of if not the most competent fighter, did very little in the final battle.

This year's main superhero movies all seem to be receiving the same criticism: too much plot and too many characters. While I find this to be a totally justified critique of Batman v Superman, I did not agree that this applied to Captain America: Civil War, nor do I find it to be a very fair assessment of X-Men. There is a lot going on in Apocalypse but it is not that hard to follow. New characters are introduced in a way that supports the current story and the film moved at a quick pace, with no scenes that felt gratuitous. So all in all, X-Men: Apocalypse was an enjoyable super hero movie and after all, isn't that the point? To have some fun and see some cool effects.