Sunday, September 24, 2017

12 Feet Deep



Director: Matt Eskandari
Starring: Alexandra Park, Nora-Jane Noone, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Buried. Phone Booth. ATM. Frozen. Open Water. The Shallows. 127 Hours. All largely single location survival thrillers that test its actors and filmmakers, pushing their ingenuity and skill to limit in order sustain viewers' attention under the sparsest of circumstances. Their plots could each be summed up in only a couple of words, but with fewer tools at their disposal, they frequently stretch out that meager description to 90 minutes or longer, a number that in many cases is pushing it. Sometimes as trying for audiences as those directly involved in the project, it's one of the toughest sub-genres to successfully pull off and the aforementioned titles probably fall within the same realm of quality. Now joining them is Matt Eskandari's 12 Feet Deep (formerly titled The Deep End), which features a premise so hilariously bizarre that when I accidentally discovered its trailer, I actually thought it was a spoof of some sort. But not only is it deadly serious, it's at least partially based on true events. Its official logline reads exactly as this:

"Two sisters are unwittingly trapped under the fiberglass cover of an Olympic sized public pool and must brave the cold and each other to survive the harrowing night"

This is definitely a new one, and as ridiculous as the concept reads on paper, you'll still have to concede there's something oddly intriguing about the scenario, or rather the idea that someone's even attempting it. Can an entire movie take place within the confines of an enclosed swimming pool? With only two characters? And no sharks? Released wide into theaters this past June (directly against the Mandy Moore shark cage thriller, 47 Meters Down) that this has been inexplicably sold as a horror movie is just another reminder that anything with anyone trapped anywhere is marketed as "horror." And while it is terrifying and suspenseful, it's really more of a claustrophobic morality play or character study in which two women must survive each other and a sociopathic antagonist. While it easily draws comparisons to other self-contained thrillers of the sort, it does certain things better while working with a whole lot less. By believably writing itself out of corners it has little business escaping from, the extremely well-acted, tightly directed chamber piece is no joke at all, making surprisingly efficient and inspired use of our 85 minutes.

Rebellious, quick-tempered Jonna (Alexandra Park) is meeting up with her estranged sister, the newly engaged Bree (Nora-Jane Noone), at the Ketea Aquatic Center's indoor public swimming pool, both trying to put their childhood differences behind them for a late afternoon swim before the facility closes for the holiday weekend. But when Bree unexpectedly loses her engagement ring and the pool's cranky manager (Tobin Bell) rushes to close the fiberglass cover believing everyone's gone, the girls get trapped.

With a 1-foot gap separating the water and the lid, and only a small rectangular hole in the cover providing air, the sisters have to find a method of escape or eventually perish in a watery tomb. While it seems their only hope of rescue will come from janitor Clara (Diane Farr), the bitter ex-con instead uses their predicament as an opportunity for blackmail, physically and emotionally toying with the girls as the clock runs out. Working together, the sisters struggle to put their deep-seeded differences aside to formulate an alternate plan before it's too late.   

This bare-bones, single location scenario would appear to be the ideal set-up for some kind of horror thriller, maybe with a former swim coach with a hook for a hand locking two girls in a pool and torturing them. Just the mere presence of Tobin Bell in an early cameo as the facility manager only has us suspecting the new Saw film arrived early with a Jigsaw trap, which would at least provide enough action to fill up a good chunk of its story. But it's instead a clever misdirection proving the movie's smarter than that, relying instead on the intensity of human drama, emerging organically from the personalities immersed in this terrifying situation.

How Jonna and Bree get trapped is surprisingly believable considering how absurd the notion must seem to anyone who's ever swam in an indoor pool. On one hand, it's a silly accident they could happen to anyone and was cribbed from true events. But the circumstances also work on another level that sets up the animosity between these two very different siblings, stemming from a childhood tragedy that still consumes them. Already at each others throats, they become the perfect mark for ex-con Clara, who's built up a lifetime of resentment and has enough problems that there's good reason to fear her holding the cards.

Eskandari is adept at exploiting the limited set and claustrophobic atmosphere to its maximum potential, often changing up lighting and shot selection, but in a way that makes sense within the context of the narrative, allowing the viewer to escape the potential monotony of a single location. He comes up with just enough solutions, and while it would be impossible to keep the action in the pool without taking some creative liberties, he manages to keep the manipulations to a minimum. While there's a subplot involving diabetic Bree's insulin shot that's meant to lend further urgency to the proceedings, it's factually incorrect enough to be distracting. As far as effectively piling on complications in a race against time, you just accept it and move on. A superior roadblock is the character of Clara, whose presence is most obviously the added wrench in the equation.

Far from some sneering, one-dimensional villain, Diane Farr's antagonist has a conscience, history and twisted motivation to what she's doing, almost as if she literally can't help herself. And because of the limits imposed, the performances of the three actresses are only that much more crucial in creating that tension. As Jonna, Alexandra Park undergoes a rather believable transformation from angry, recovering addict to protective sister, forced to hunker down and overcome her considerable demons and petty jealousy to fight for their survival. Nora Jane-Noone gives the more reserved, cerebral Bree a tidy, organized facade as the "good sister," but as their situation wears down, so does she, physically spent from her medical condition and even more emotionally drained by the childhood trauma she's suppressed.

What's refreshing about the third act is how the story believably resolves itself. There's no eleventh hour deus ex machina or improbable coincidence that saves them from near-certain death. But the highest compliment that can be paid the screenplay is that you really do get the feeling Eskandari would kill everyone off if it served the story. Because the characters are clearly defined, so are their actions, creating a plausible chain of events that concludes in a way that feels both appropriate and logical. Like most single location thrillers, 12 Feet Deep creates a heightened reality where people find within themselves the will to survive. It may not be a profound statement in the genre, but by intelligently working its way around a head-scratching premise, it definitely stands out from the pack.       

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Circle



Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson,  Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Running Time:
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Within James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Egger's 2013 dystopian sci-fi novel, The Circle, resides an idea, and sometimes even a reality, so timely and captivating that the film literally forgets to anything with it. Starting strongly, it builds its promising premise one step at a time, methodically mapping out a clear direction the story should take and where everyone wants to see it go. It's one of those rare cases where predictability is desired because the concept is so rich it almost feels as if most of the work is done. Unfortunately for us, as viewers, it's an eye-opening reminder of just how false that assumption is. No concept on its own is ever good enough to carry an entire picture. So just as The Circle seems to get going, it ends. Or rather, it just closes. Complete stoppage. In fact, the film feels so abruptly unresolved, even when the credits started rolling, I was still unsure it concluded. With a certifiable treasure trove of unexplored material left, it may be the cruelest example yet of a movie not being what it's about, but how.

Armed with a talented cast, a superb writer/director, and screenplay co-penned by the author himself, it fails to do something that seems almost ridiculously simple: Raise the stakes. The film's very existence promises that, as we're teased throughout that it'll dive into those deep, dark, morally compromising waters occupied by the likes of 1984 or A Brave New World, its obvious inspirations. And the timing couldn't have possibly been better for it. But instead, we're left nodding our heads in agreement at all the timely, relevant ideas the movie contains, appreciating something that more closely resembles a documentary about what a great movie about those ideas would look and feel like. Two hours of set-up with minimal payoff. Strangely, it might be one of the best recent remake candidates, as it would be tempting to see what the same cast could do with a different script that lets them fully follow through on all the ideas presented, and frustratingly left on the table, relegated to our imaginations.

When struggling customer service rep Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is contacted by her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about a potential job opening at the enormous, Google-like, California-based tech company she works for called The Circle, it seems to be the perfect opportunity. With her father, Vinnie (Bill Paxton in his final role) suffering from multiple sclerosis as mom Bonnie (Glenn Headly) provides around-the-clock care, Mae's personal life is in a bit of turmoil, tempered somewhat by a recent reunion with ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane). After apparently acing what's best described as a bizarre interview, Mae gets a job in The Circle's "Customer Experience" department, where she learns the importance of maintaining a strong and very public social media presence within the company.

The mastermind behind this entire operation is CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who with right-hand man and co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), envisions a world of complete transparency with his introduction of a program called SeeChange, and wants rapidly rising employee Mae to be the face of it. But when co-worker and social networking pioneer Ty Lafitte (John Boyega) keys her in to the company's potentially nefarious motives, she must make a choice that puts her personal beliefs and the privacy rights of citizens directly at odds with an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new digital revolution.

As a reflection of the world in which we currently live and where it seems to be heading, the script hits it right on the head, successfully envisioning a fictional tech company nearly identical to and inspired by both Google and Apple. With a base of operations more closely resembling a laid-back university campus than the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) really gets the aesthetic  of what this environment would look and feel like, as well as the excitement of being a part of it. That this is happening right now and the film's strongest aspect is that with its emphasis on social media obsession and the elimination of privacy, not a whole lot of what occurs seems even the slightest bit exaggerated. If anything, it could stand to go more over-the-top, which is exactly where we think things are going.

In capturing the wide-eyed exuberance of a reserved girl overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Emma Watson's performance as Mae, while fine, seems to be a bigger achievement in casting than anything else since she (like most everyone else) is never pushed to do the heavy lifting you'd think would accompany a story this ripe with possibility. Of course, Eamon and The Circle have less than philanthropic intentions with the rollout of this new technology, which essentially monitors every individual 24/7 with hidden cameras, and it's to the screenplay's credit that it does at least address the pros and cons of this technology, as well as its moral implications. Unfortunately, it doesn't get around to showing any of them, at least in an impactful enough manner to kick the narrative into the next gear.

When Mae becomes this social media superstar, embracing her role within the company and supporting its mission, the film, and Watson's performance, are its strongest, reflecting Truman Show-like themes that explore the dangers and thrills of living an entirely public life, accompanied by some great on screen visuals. And as she becomes Eamon's pet project, that was absolutely the time to take things to the next sinister level, as you could easily rattle off about four of five steps the writers could have taken to make this company seem like a lethal threat. What they're planning certainly warrants it, posing a big enough threat to be endangering the lives of anyone questioning the organization's purpose, especially Mae, who's ascended into the inner Circle. Why not tamper with her father's medical equipment? Or do something with or to John Boyega's mysterious character, whose dropped just as quickly as he's introduced.

When something does finally occur that could be considered "dangerous," it's essentially an accident involving a character whose relationship to the protagonist was presented in such a muddled, ambiguous way from the moment he first appeared on screen, that it hardly connects. A sub-plot involving dissension between Mae and her friend Annie over the company's agenda isn't developed at all and seems to come out of nowhere.The biggest loss stemming from the script's faults is a failure to properly utilize Tom Hanks, here given the rarest of opportunities to sink his teeth into what could have been one of the actor's most complex roles had the material supported him.

It's almost painful to watch Hanks' scenes since his magnificent channeling of a scheming, Steve Jobs-like CEO, whose greed convinces him he knows what's best for the world, is basically undercut by an uneventful screenplay. Watching him on stage in his corporate presentations, you can only imagine the result had this gone to that dark place, allowing him to really cut loose and get inside the head of a potentially fascinating on screen villain. Instead, he's forced to provide nearly all of this himself, but it's a good bet most will still be thoroughly impressed with how much he does with it. And already well established by now as a surprisingly strong dramatic supporting presence, Patton Oswalt sits it out on the sidelines, mostly forced to stand around giving stern looks. This all leads to a final act let-down, as you could envision something similar to this ending actually working had the groundwork been properly laid leading into it. What we're left with feels more like an extended teaser for a more compelling project.

While assessing the movie you didn't see rather than what's on screen is rarely a good idea, what happens when most of its running time is comprised of reminders of that better, unseen film? It seems as if every scene unintentionally teases us with what we could have been, and despite this being one of my most anticipated releases of the year, it's hard to look at it as anything other than a disappointment, regardless of expectations. That indie-leaning Ponsoldt is such a great director probably accounts for nearly half those expectations, making it easy to assume that the biggest, most mainstream effort of his career was hampered by a studio that lacked the guts to explore the potentially polarizing, but compelling themes Eggers' put forth in his novel. For The Circle to be successful, it had to go dark, and use the platform it was given to intelligently exploit some very real and timely fears. By never fully addressing the ideas at its core, we're left with a final product that feels less like a paranoid thriller than a tame corporate training video.
       

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Split



Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details**


While watching M. Night Shyamalan's Split with a mixture of excitement, dread and trepidation, the one question that kept reverberating through my mind was, "When is he going to blow it?" It isn't an unfair concern given the director's reputation and track record over the past decade, which resulted in the creative implosion of a career that's proven to be anything but unbreakable. This is his hail mary, a last ditch attempt to prove that flops like Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are anomalies. So now, after showing some renewed signs of creative life with 2015's The Visit, Shyamalan gives us Split, and right from its tense opening, it's obvious he's come to play again.

With a thrilling set-up, a fresh cast of rising stars mixed with established newcomers, and an ingeniously constructed script to support them, Shyamalan makes his best film. Hands down. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise considering I never quite shared the love others had for The Sixth Sense, it's not.  He gets everything right, firing on all cylinders, all while giving audiences the gift of two, maybe even three, award-caliber performances, one of which is so subtly powerful it's gone almost completely unnoticed. 

This is such a strong effort and the comeback so welcome that I almost feel guilty mentioning that giant elephant in the room known as the final scene. While it's a stretch to say he drops the ball as feared, and it does nothing to diminish the power of the overall experience, the decision to close the film in this way makes absolutely no sense because it has so little to do with anything preceding it. Shyamalan does something I've rallied against for years but has become so prevalent recently that it's reached epidemic levels, engulfing someone who could barely get his movies made just a couple of years ago. But what a homecoming this is, and even if its last 30 seconds cause concern, we should just relish what we're given: A compelling, meticulously plotted psychological thriller that methodically lays its groundwork before paying off in a pulse-pounding sprint to the finish that won't soon be forgotten. No twists. No games. To call this a return to form for him would almost be an insulting understatement.

Three teenagers, the popular Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and introverted social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are being driven home from a party by Claire's dad when a mysterious bald-headed man attacks him in the parking lot and drives off with and abducting the girls. The man is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), but the person responsible for the crime is "Dennis," one of Kevin's 24 personalities manifesting itself from abuse he suffered in childhood. Diagnosed with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder), he's currently being treated under psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's pleased with his progress in balancing these personalities despite recent red flags that indicate he's struggling.

Locked captive in an undisclosed location, the girls are exposed to "Patricia," a female personality who's assisting the voyeuristic, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," and 9-year-old "Hedwig," who Casey sees as the easiest to manipulate into helping them escape. With a panicked Claire and Marcia frantically trying anything possible to get out, it's clear that Casey's the introspective thinker of the three, laying back and assessing the most practical way out of what looks to be the most dire of situations. As Dr. Fletcher's suspicions grow, the girls fight for their lives while Kevin's personalities battle for dominance, including a dormant one that's potentially the most dangerous of all.

Like an expertly constructed puzzle box, the details of Kevin's unusual condition reveals itself the more dangerous and unpredictable he becomes. By taking a conceit that if taken at face value should be ridiculous and treating it every step of the way with a certain respect and plausibility, Shyamalan makes us buy in. While Multiple Personality Disorder is very much a real thing, the amplified version of it that this script presents most definitely isn't, but the movie explains it in such confident, mind-blowing detail through both words and actions that we wouldn't dare doubt any of it. But that's not to say this at all plays as some kind of dry psychology lecture, as it cleverly foreshadows what's to come, making and abiding by its own rules the entire way.

Two different cat-and-mouse games transpire simultaneously, with Kevin (or rather "Dennis") attempting to outwit Dr. Fletcher while the captured girls try to predict the unpredictable and forecast their window of opportunity for escape. It all clicks largely due to McAvoy, who prior to this came across as a dependable enough actor who carries a film just fine, the true extent of his talents remaining somewhat untested. But he does here is miraculous tour de force, dropping on a dime to believably shift gears between all these distinctive personalities, some of whom are even posing as other personalities. That we not only get this, but can determine with relative ease exactly who he is at any given moment, is a true testament to the high-wire act he pulls off.

At times a performance within a performance within a performance, how MacAvoy completely changes his voice, movements, posture, tone and even physical appearance (often multiple times during a single scene) defies and breaks the boundaries we have in our heads while watching. It looks exhausting, but if this performance doesn't work, the entire premise crumbles, and the psychological backbone of the screenplay doesn't stick. Also helping hold that up is Betty Buckley, who as Dr. Fletcher helps dispel the myth that there are no vital roles left for actresses over 60 not named Helen Mirren.

Buckley, last known to many for putting her head through a window in the Happening's most embarrassing scene is completely redeemed with a part far worthier of her talents. Going face-to-face with her troubled patient in some of the most important, narrative defining scenes, she's magnificent, finding just the right balance between motherly compassion and tough, brutal honesty, juggling some of the more expository exchanges and sudden revelations like a pro. She, like McAvoy, must switch gears at a moment's notice when the full, dangerous extent of Kevin's condition begins to surprise even her.

Due to the nature of the role, comparisons between Buckley's character and Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films are practically inevitable, but I hesitate giving more credence to this being mistakenly categorized as some kind of horror slasher, which it surely isn't. There are points where Dr. Fletcher guides the narrative, but never to the extent that you'd think it's her story since Buckley provides such strong, low-key support opposite McAvoy's performance, invisibly steering each scene they share. Her work not only stands out as a real keeper, but feels absolutely crucial to the story's success.

Shyamalan has called Casey Cooke his favorite character he's ever written, so it's probably fitting that the actress cast as her, the still relatively unknown Anya Taylor-Joy, gives what ranks among the most powerful performances in any of his pictures. Anyone who saw her highly praised turn in 2015's supernatural period horror film The Witch or as college student Barack Obama's girlfriend in Netflix's Presidential origin story, Barry, already knew she had something really special and was worth watching. But as Casey, Taylor-Joy gets to dig fairly deep, playing a girl whose own volatile history equips her with the emotional tools necessary to not only cope with horrifying predicament she and the girls find themselves in, but connect with Kevin's personalities at a level no one can, aside from Dr. Fletcher.

From the opening sequence, time seems to stop as we're uncomfortably drawn into Casey's reaction, she uses only her giant eyes to convey all the terror, fear and unpredictability such an abduction would likely entail. This happens a lot throughout, as Taylor-Joy's most memorable scenes often have little to no dialogue at all and consist of her strategizing her next move in the presence of two girls who have far less interest in formulating a game plan.

While childhood flashbacks involving her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke)  are sporadically used to explain the character's past, and they do work, I'm willing to believe we'd probably know anyway just by Anya's facial expressions, demeanor and body language throughout. Any information coming our way rarely feels like a shock or twist (as it often does in Shyamalan films) but rather a confirmation of what she was silently and subtly telling us the entire time.

Unconventional in both presence and looks, Taylor-Joy definitely doesn't fit your typical movie star mold, but in the best possible way, so it would be a shame if after two incredibly successful genre performances she gets pigeonholed as some kind of reigning "scream queen" when she should be competing for dramatic opportunities far beyond that. Her performance stands as the best from an actress so far this year, regardless of how you choose to classify it. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are fine in their underdeveloped roles, which require them to panic in various states of undress, but it's their co-star that commands all the attention as they fade into the background.

Strangely, it's hard watching the last third of this thriller without comparing it to another surprise sleeper hit from earlier in the year, Jordan Peele's Get Out. While the content isn't at all similar and this certainly doesn't carry the same subversive social commentary, both pull off the extremely difficult transition from psychological drama to full-blown horror without missing a beat. And they do it by setting up the premise so well and believably that when the train starts careening off the tracks, it makes sense within the context of the world that's been created. Shyamalan goes very far, but reasonably, likely surprising many who went in expecting a final twist of the knife, because, you know, that's what he does.

What we do get is something that feels like an additional scene past the point where the movie should clearly conclude. In a broader sense, the ill-conceived final moment doesn't make that much of a difference in that it doesn't effect the actual narrative and plays more as an Easter egg or add-on. But if that's the case, then why do it?  It's a real stretch linking the now 17-year-old Unbreakable with Split, and even if Shyamalan did it masterfully within this single scene (which he doesn't), there's still no justification for its presence.

The closing scene just doesn't belong here, and neither does Bruce Willis, whose distracting cameo is more likely to induce head-scratching reactions questioning its purpose rather than build excitement for a potential "Shymalaniverse." Someone needed to tell him this isn't a Marvel movie, and I say that as someone who wholeheartedly agrees that the unfairly maligned Unbreakable probably did deserve a sequel years ago and stands as Shyamalan's most worthwhile accomplishment, at least until this. But it only gets harder justify that when he continues to make these kinds of decisions.

There's this devastating, incredibly acted scene in the police car when Casey's told she's being sent back to live with her uncle that I wish was the last thing we saw in this film. It's just perfect, and could easily be used in an Oscar clip reel sent to Academy members touting Anya Taylor-Joy's lead performance. That's a pipe dream, but only because Shyamalan made it one by not knowing what he had. If he did, there's no way he would have wet the bed with that ending instead of putting the closing emphasis on a character who was actually in the film.

Let's not kid ourselves into thinking an Unbreakable sequel is happening for any other reason than the fantastic work Shyamalan does here on Split, but it seems that in his mind he's just making superhero movies, not realizing that the main appeal of his films was how they never outright acknowledged that.  While he's obviously done something far more substantial with this, it's that lack of self-awareness that's made him his own worst enemy at times. And yet, that's somehow fitting for a filmmaker who's spent a career both thrilling and frustrating audiences in equal measure.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Neon Demon



Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcoate, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R 

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological horror thriller The Neon Demon introduces us to one of the least confident protagonists to recently carry a film. At least initially. So innocent and unsure of herself that every word she speaks is phrased as a question, there's this doe-eyed, stuck in headlights look that seems to define her. You start thinking that regardless of her looks, it may be impossible for this girl to find legitimate success as a model. After all, this is L.A. She'll be (literally?) eaten alive by the insecure, ambitious competition who can smell fear, and a serious threat, from miles away. It turns out, we don't even know the half of it.

An all-out assault on the senses brought to you by the filmmaker who previously polarized audiences with Drive and Only God Forgives is almost daring us to point out the superficiality of his latest effort. Don't take the bait. That's the entire point, even if that doesn't necessarily make it any more enjoyable to watch. Some of the content arriving in the picture's last third, and one scene specifically, is both disgusting and disturbing, making you wonder how this somehow managed to evade the MPAA's dreaded "NC-17."

The actual story, which is strangely Refn's most straightforward yet, serves as background noise to sights and sounds that aren't quite like anything recently brought to the screen. And yet, all of it works a bit better before all the subtext becomes text, and the heavy foreshadowing leads us into crazy land, the film might have seemed a little less ridiculous minus that eventual destination.  But it also may have been a hell of a lot less fun. There's no doubt that it looks and feels great, despite my lingering doubts as to whether it transcends those pleasures to become something more than a shocking horror genre exercise.

16-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from a small Georgia town with aspirations of becoming a model. After having her first photoshoot with a guy she meets named Dean (Karl Glusman), she soon scores an interview with modeling agency head Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who's so impressed with her potential that she refers her to a test shoot with renowned photographer Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). Despite forging a friendship with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse's rapid, meteoric ascent draws the ire of her modeling peers, the older, more experienced Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate).

In an industry when you're washed up before you hit twenty five, the girls notice this newbie is accomplishing in just a few short months what they couldn't during their entire careers, as Jamie seems to transfix everyone with a youthful, fresh-faced look and appeal they've gone under the knife many times to try to duplicate. The claws are out and they smell blood, doing all they can to undermine the competition and preserve their jobs. For the shy, introverted Jesse comes the test of whether she can withstand it, or more accurately, adapt to survive in a world where looks are the most valuable commodity.

Much is made of Jamie's youth, so the casting of Fanning makes a lot of sense as the main point is that she's entirely too young to be exposed to an industry that devours its young. She also has an entirely different look that serves her well in the role, making it somewhat plausible that all these top shelf agents and photographers would be falling all over themselves when she arrives. It gets to be a bit much at times with that, but at least we get it, whereas with another another actress lacking such an distinct look, we might not. Of course, the character's fifteen, which Hendricks's agency owner quickly adjusts up to nineteen since eighteen is "too on the nose."

The others girls take an immediate disliking to her that grows with each new opportunity, the most memorable of which comes in the form of a Goldfinger-style photoshoot featuring a genuinely unsettling turn from an intense, gaunt-looking Desmond Harrington from TV's Dexter. You're kept on edge watching the whole time, both fearing for Jamie's safety yet opening yourself up to the idea that this might simply be all for the sake of some kind of twisted performance art. Either way, it's creepy, and Cliff Martinez's sparse, haunting 80's electronic score only serves to makes it that much creepier.

For a while the film constantly walks up to that line and teases, like with Jamie's interactions with a sleazy motel manager named Hank, who Keanu Reeves plays with scenery-chomping gusto in a welcome excursion to the dark side. Between this, John Wick, and his lead role in 2015's underrated home invasion thriller, Knock Knock, it's getting to the point where he's entering Nicolas Cage territory, but in the best way, where we literally can't wait to see what's next. There's some more going on here too, like an unwelcome animal intruder and the increasing sense that these models are much more than merely jealous. As this happens, a change comes over Jamie as well, with all roads leading to what feels like an inevitable showdown.

Described in its conception as a combination of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's somewhat ironic that it's actually more successful when drawing from the former. The suspense and anticipation for what eventually occurs, and the accompanying drama driving it, is actually far more intriguing than the craziness that arrives in the final act. While it's clearly trying to make a point about how humankind's obsession with physical beauty is destroying us from the inside-out, Refn delivers it in such a silly, ham-fisted, over-the-top manner that it comes off as ridiculous rather than scary.

The last half-hour is kind of difficult to process, if we're even supposed to. As for Fanning, her performance is exactly what it needs to be, even if I remain uncertain what it's all in the service of since her character could be viewed as kind of a cipher. It's been a breakthrough year for her between this and even more resonant work in 20th Century Women, marking the evolution of a mature talent who's child acting days are now comfortably behind her.

For all the film's mind-blowing visuals and bombast, I found myself struggling to extract more than just a begrudging respect and admiration for its craft. You can only shock so much before the credits roll and you're left contemplating what it all means. cenes of necrophilia and cannibalism can leave a searing imprint, but without a connection to the characters, it only goes so far. In terms of delivering psychological thrills, it's tantalizing on more than a few levels before completely abandoning that idea in favor of pure sensationalism. The Neon Demon is meant to provoke a strong reaction and does, but the only thing you're left contemplating when it's over is whether it was the right one.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Elvis & Nixon



Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Ahna O' Reilly, Ashley Benson, Dylan Penn
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

On the morning of December 21, 1970, a meeting took place at the White House between two of the most important and controversial public figures of the 20th century. It created a moment immortalized in a legendary photograph that became the the National Archives' most requested image. Thankfully, Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon isn't exactly a movie about that, at least in the strictest sense. If it was, there's a chance we'd be exposed to a reality that's nowhere near as funny or subversively entertaining as what ends up on screen. And while we all probably could have lived without the disturbing knowledge that "The King" and the disgraced 37th President of the United States share an alarming amount in common, isn't it kind of strangely unsurprising? The casting would imply the film's a big joke, and while that's true to an extent, it's at least a really funny joke that also works as a deep dive into the complicated personalities of these two eccentric figures.

Clocking in at a breezy 86 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, focusing tightly on the immediate events leading up to this infamous meeting and the actual event itself, which definitely doesn't disappoint, thanks largely to the two immersive performances carrying it. This is one of those little footnotes in history that upon reflection signifies much more than it did at the time, with the film's strongest aspect being how well it conveys that. Everyone involved is so blissfully unaware of how simultaneously important and ridiculous this all this. It's hard watching without drawing parallels to current events, contemplating just how thin the line separating politics and celebrity has become. For better or worse, you could easily argue that this rarely discussed encounter helped pave the way, its implications still reverberating through the culture. 

It's 1970 and singer Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is enjoying somewhat of a career resurgence off the heels of his late '60's comeback special, his fame and public recognizability at an apex. But despite this enormous success, the problems currently facing America heavily weigh on him as he lounges in his palatial Graceland estate, joined at the hip by best friend and "Memphis Mafia" cohort Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and bodyguard Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville). Disturbed by the hippie movement and worried the drug culture is rapidly eating away at the minds of the era's youth, Elvis makes it his mission to get sworn in by President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as an undercover "agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

To accomplish his lofty goal, Presley will have to find a way to reach Nixon, and after showing up at the gates of the White House with a handwritten letter, his request eventually makes it into the hands of top administrative officials Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), Evan Peters and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, After initially brushing it off as a ridiculous joke, they soon recognize the obvious, very real opportunity the meeting presents for Nixon to overhaul his out-of-touch, old fashioned image, particularly with young southern voters. But getting the President on board is full of an entirely new set of challenges, culminating in an encounter for the ages as Elvis meets Nixon.

There's a reason the film is titled Elvis & Nixon and not Nixon & Elvis, as the script devotes a considerably larger amount of time to Presley. He's the one on the journey, he's the mind we're granted access to, and at times, it's a fairly strange place to be. Torn between his loyalty to and love for a profession that's afforded him so much and the discomfort of having strangers viewing him as "Elvis" 24/7, he sees a lot of himself in Nixon, who also came from humble beginnings and shares similar conservative values.

The casting of Michael Shannon, known for playing psychotic creeps and menacing weirdos, is unusual not only due to him lacking any physical resemblance to The King, but because the choice seems like it could be some kind of inside joke on audiences. If this were an all-out mindless comedy that might be true, but anyone truly familiar with Shannon knows just how much more he's capable of bringing to it. And he does.

Shannon really gets under Presley's skin during a period of his life where he really did come across as a disturbed eccentric, albeit a likable, well-meaning one. When Elvis is at first informed that the President has no desire to meet him, Presley's not insulted that Nixon doesn't want to meet the one and only "King of Rock n' Roll," but rather sad and disappointed as an American because he has some ideas to share and thinks and they'd be friends. The deflated look on Shannon's face is more akin to an overgrown child being told they won't be meeting Santa Claus than a spoiled celebrity not getting what he wants. It's a small but crucial example of one of many nuances the movie gets right.

Much of the comedy comes from those closest to the two men trying to control uncontrollable personalities since no one really has any idea what will happen when they meet. Nixon is portrayed as an insulated old man, so stubbornly grasping to traditional values it comes as little surprise he has no idea who Elvis Presley even is. That he may have in reality has no baring on the fact that this movie believably theorizing that he didn't is just perfect. It isn't even until his team have to use his daughter to get through to him that they're able to finally set the wheels in motion.

No stranger to playing the Commander-in-Chief on House of Cards, Kevin Spacey now gets to tackle a real one and his physical embodiment of Nixon's mannerisms, posture and way of speaking are frighteningly on point, even taking into account the great actors who have previously tackled the role. While he doesn't get the screen time Shannon does, he makes the absolute most of it, conveying the type of defiant personality that would eventually lead to his downfall. He definitely lived and worked in a bubble, and there's no getting around the distracting fact that Spacey's portrayal will draw inescapable comparisons to our current President.

Finding plenty of common ground in their mutual disdain of hippies, The Beatles, and communism, it was inevitable Elvis and Nixon would hit it off, their discussion as off-the-wall as you'd expect and then some. The rest of the characters are mere window dressing, as they should be, attempting and often failing to keep their bosses' worst tendencies in check. Like how Presley basically tries to sneak an arsenal of firearms into the Oval Office and the person most perplexed as to why that's not  permitted is Nixon himself.

While all the characters' quirks are on full display in the eventual encounter, this semi-biographical account still somehow avoids feeling like a parody because it has genuine affection for two otherwise good men who each had their personality flaws magnified by the pressures of the spotlight. Under different circumstances, maybe both would have been regarded a bit differently, and perhaps even deserve to be. Elvis & Nixon zeroes in on that to become a fun, engaging trip back in time that's as straightforward and direct as the meeting itself.              

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O' Reilly
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some key plot details**

When it was announced that Disney's purchase of the Star Wars franchise would include the development of a series of standalone spin-off films, I winced. Or more accurately, I feared it for a number of reasons, a few of which are validated, but mostly dismissed by Rogue One, a much better than expected effort given all the trepidation, hype and nearly insurmountable expectations surrounding it. Call it what you'd like, but it's still Star Wars, and its hardcore fans, freshly basking in the critical and commercial success of The Force Awakens, expect greatness each time out. In fact, if we know anything about them at all, it's that they demand it. And that's essentially my entire problem with Disney doing this. If these standalone films are THAT great, how will that not make the other "real" ones seem less special or not dilute the brand? And if these spin-offs disappoint, we don't even need to get into the negative effects that will have, on both Disney's bottom line and the recently rejuvenated public goodwill toward the franchise after George Lucas stepped away. But, I also get it. It's silly resuscitating this franchise if you're not going to milk as much from it as you possibly can.

When it was decided this would be a dreaded "prequel," a whole new potential set of problems presented itself since a burning desire the see this universe expanded is held by only the hardest of hardcore fans. If Lucas' prequels taught us anything, it's that the more we actually learned about the backstory of the galaxy, the more uninteresting it became. Rogue One doesn't bore us with talks of taxation and trade tariffs, but it also doesn't feature Luke Skywalker or Han Solo either. Disney knows where its bread is buttered so they have to be careful, its grip on their property understandably tightening with each new release. A lot is on the line, and any director looking to recreate the franchise in their own vision need not apply. The man hired for this job is Gareth Edwards, who works well within those tight confines to makes something that's not exactly Star Wars, but isn't too far off from it either.

While I wouldn't go as far as some as some as praising it as the franchise's best film since The Empire Strikes Back, it's still a very good one that's darker and grittier than expected. It's more like a cover of a Star Wars film, only just not as close of one as J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, which was a reproduction so authentic it could easily be considered the real thing. While that's not necessarily a debit, it's also kind of all over the place, baring the hallmarks of many cooks in the creative kitchen. Despite these obstacles, it does all come together as an oddly thrilling experience, especially in the final 45 minutes, when these movies tend to feel most bloated. What works really does and what doesn't sticks out, but besides being an entertaining adventure and a solid Star Wars chapter, it's worth examining as a possible template of what to expect from these spin-offs moving forward.

A flashback introduces us to young Jyn Erso, whose father, research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is being threatened by Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to take his family and leave the planet Lah'mu in order to complete work on the infamous Death Star. With her mother killed and father taken into Imperial custody, Jyn escapes with the help of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial labor camp by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who takes her back to the Alliance, where she's informed of a rescue mission to retrieve her father, still working for the Imperial Army.

After a holographic message communicated from defecting Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) reveals her father has valuable information about a weakness embedded within the Death Star, Jyn, Cassian, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) set out to find him.  When complications arise involving the true intentions of the mission, it becomes clear that the Empire is not only stronger than expected, but its Death Star capable of even more mass destruction than imagined. Somehow, they have to obtain the blueprints, but with Krennic getting his marching orders from Grand Moff Tarkin and the shadowy menace of Darth Vader looming, it could very well end up being a suicide mission for the Rebels.

Forgoing the traditional opening crawl that's started each the preceding seven films in the franchise, Rogue One establishes itself early on as slightly different. The decision to abandon this but retain the "A Long Time Ago..." title card is a curious one, as is the call to hold back a bit with the familiar music throughout, picking and choosing their spots for Michael Giacchino's sampling of John Williams' original themes. There's a lot of housekeeping that goes on in the opening hour since Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script must introduce a slew of new characters and fill in enough backstory so that we're not completely lost and can connect the dots to the characters and events within the universe we are familiar with from the previous films.

While this isn't as tightly put together as The Force Awakens, with a lot of narrative stuffed in and transitions between locations not always seamless, at least it's a true prequel in every sense of the word. What occurs directly relates and even bleeds into the events of Episode IV and if the Death Star has started to become a narrative crutch for the series, it's hard to blame them for going back to it given its recognizability and importance. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this actually looks like one in that its dirty and grungy enough to have believably taken place before the events with which we're most familiar. Picking up where Abrams left off, there's still a healthier balance of practical effects and green screen CGI, with only two very notable exceptions. And as much as the comparisons to the Empire Strikes Back  seem a bit overblown, it is fair to claim that this is the and most crisp looking installment since then, with Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser again delivering stellar work, especially when it comes to the visuals in the latter half.

Of everything, character development suffers most as the story races along toward the battle at Scarif, which will occupy much of the film's final thrilling act. Casting was key and if Felicity Jones doesn't initially jump out as a typical Star Wars protagonist, she changes minds in a hurry. Of all these new faces, she was the one audiences most needed a connection to with and she manages it in both the combat scenes and more dramatic moments involving her father.  It's definitely a stark contrast to Forest Whitaker, who really hams it up, drawing unintentional laughs in his role as a Rebel extremist. But that's an improvement over the complete lack of entertainment a bland Diego Luna provides as Cassian, who's clearly intended to be a "bad boy" pilot in the vain of Han Solo, or more recently, Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron. Whether it was how the character was written, performed, or possibly a combination of the two, he instead comes off as a poor man's version of both, completely lacking in charisma and personality. More memorable is Donnie Yen as the blind monk Chirrut and Alan Tudyk, who makes the pessimistic, matter-of-fact K-2SO droid an inspired alternative to the R2's and C3PO's of the galaxy.

Perhaps no contemporary character actor could be better served in the part of an Imperial Military Director than Ben Mendelsohn, who's carved out a nice supporting career playing exactly these types of creepy, slimey manipulators. It may be kind of a one-note role, but he sure hits it thunderously well. And he does it under fairly unusual circumstances, acting in many scenes opposite the CGI ghost of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Guy Henry). In a development George Lucas would undoubtedly endorse (and is probably jealous he didn't get a chance to incorporate himself), modern movie technology can digitally resurrect deceased actors and fully immerse them into scenes opposite current performers. While we can joke about how this dreaded day has finally arrived, it's actually executed fairly well in this case and is likely less distracting than if Lucas were still at the controls.

It helps that Cushing always had a robotic presence and ghastly countenance that made him terrifying on screen, making him in many ways the perfect subject for this kind of a cinematic experiment. Whether we need something like this is another debate entirely, but those involved should at least be commended for pulling it off well, despite reintroducing a reliance on technology that previously hampered Lucas' prequels. If they wisely pick their spots it won't be a problem, but their other attempt at it in the film with a far bigger name comes off, at best, as a needless distraction. While those involved couldn't have known at the time they'd be digitally resurrecting another deceased actor in Carrie Fisher, that still doesn't explain why it looks so awful. Thankfully, it's quick,  logical within the framework of the story, and we still have her for an upcoming Star Wars film that will hopefully serve as a proper swan song for the actress.

Even the most casual of fans will be able to pick up on certain Easter eggs sprinkled throughout and cameos from familiar minor and major characters, occasionally showing up in the background or foreground of various scenes. Most of them work well and don't feel shoehorned in, but what everyone really wants to talk about is the film's worst kept secret: The reappearance of Darth Vader. Still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones but with two new actors (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous) taking over for David Prowse in the suit. And while not quite as physically imposing, there's no mistaking that the character himself is as formidable as ever. He has only a couple of brief scenes, but one in particular that comes late, puts to rest any concerns that his appearances wouldn't be carefully chosen or played for maximum impact. Not only was it worth the wait, but it's not a hotshot, adding a pertinent layer to the narrative.

Whatever its issues, Rogue One offesr something that no other installment preceding it did, except possibly the far inferior Revenge of the Sith. An ending with tragic resonance. Not completely, but enough to make you wonder how much Disney must have debated going with it. To their credit, it would have been easy not to and everyone still probably would have eaten it up anyway since it's Star Wars. But they did, and it's that decision, and the entire execution of the final battle that makes the film linger longer than it otherwise would. Fans like to know what they've seen on screen means something, and for this franchise, where the stakes are suddenly even higher than usual, Rogue One delivers that, and even a bit more.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Lion



Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Kheshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Lion earns its Best Picture nomination in its opening half, trusting the audience to not only comprehend, but become completely enveloped in a story that's initially spoken entirely in Hindi, and without the benefit of subtitles. It turns out to be a wise bet. The opening 45 minutes are so expertly calibrated and performed, brimming with lump-in-your-throat moments of disbelief, perseverance and astonishment, it was almost inevitable that whatever followed would pale in comparison. That it doesn't, at least completely, is somewhat of a tiny miracle, with much of that credit going to Australian director Garth Davis, who in adapting Saroo Brierley's 2013 autobiographical novel, A Long Way Home, temporarily refutes the theory that Hollywood filmmakers pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to depicting foreign cultures.

It opens with a mistake that has ripple effect on more than a few lives, but the true revelation might come in how frequently something like this occurs, or how little we hear about it. Then after a certain point, Luke Davies Oscar-nominated screenplay does kind of hit a wall, which has led to harsh criticisms that the film stretches out a 30-second spot for Google Earth to a two-hour running length. But there's just too much else it has going for it to make those completely complaints valid since, despite a weaker middle portion, the performances, cinematography and underrated musical score make it too powerful an experience to dismiss.

It's 1986 and a five year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guduu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger sister in a tiny, poor village in Khandwa, India. One night, when Saroo joins his brother Guduu for a night of train-hopping for food, Guduu leaves his napping little sibling at a station and when Saroo awakens to find his brother hasn't returned, he boards a train headed to Calcutta. Now completely lost and wandering around a city where he doesn't speak or understand the Bengali language, Saroo must survive on the crowded streets and rely on the help of strangers, some with motives more nefarious than others. After landing in the custody of police and eventually an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley and goes to live with them in Tasmania.

We catch up with him twenty years later as a young man (now Dev Patel), studying for his degree in  hotel management and involved in a relationship with American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But despite Saroo having a fulfilled life and more than anyone from his background could have hoped for, there's an incompleteness that eats away at him, stemming from a desire to track down his biological family and make sense of that night's events over two decades ago. While his adopted mother struggles with family challenges of her own, Saroo wrestles with the guilt and hope of finding "home," embarking on a journey of self-discovery sure to have a lasting impact on those he holds closest.

The opening section actually shares some similarities with the last entirely Indian-flavored Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner), Slumdog Millionaire. And while we know, like that film, we'll eventually be given our happy ending, the scenes of kids on the street here have a far different tone, especially when watching a scared young Saroo aimlessly searching for his brother in a perilous situation surely qualifying as an immediate "Amber Alert" if it took place today in the states. Even in 1986, as commonplace as lost, homeless children in India may have been, it's still kind of frightening to see through western eyes.

What really sells this is the editing and the likably adorable child actor playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, whose combination of wide-eyed panic and innocence, along with some steely determination, carries the first half of the picture, eliminating the language barrier for both him and us. It seems like eternity he's on the streets, avoiding kidnappers and potential child molesters on his way to who knows where. It's disturbing how few people care about kids like him running around in the streets and really do nothing even when they think they are. That is until, by sheer luck, he meets someone who finally takes the necessary measures to offer actual help.

After watching this five-year-old struggle to survive after being separated from his sibling, it's of little surprise the second half of the film would have to work hard to match the Dickensian heights of its opening hour, both in tone and quality.  But it works well as a logical next chapter, thanks largely  to the strong performance of a nearly unrecognizable Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, whose suddenly jolted into finding his biological family, but fears the ramifications of what going forward with such a plan could do to his adoptive mother, already at the breaking point dealing with her other adopted Indian son, the emotionally disturbed Montash. The casting of both the child and adult versions of this role are spot-on, as actors Kheshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa are so eerily identical in both manner and appearance you'd really think the filmmakers pulled a Boyhood, checking in with the same person twenty years later.

The entire second half really belongs to Patel, who nearly everyone had written off as a one-movie wonder after Slumdog Millionaire peaked almost a decade ago. And for a while there, it really looked like they were right. He returns in a big way here, a better, more mature actor, fully capable of handling the complexity of emotions running through Saroo as he embarks on his (Google) search for his birth mother. Just the very conceit of this true story could have been problematic on screen, but Patel takes what could have been a dramatically inert arc and draws us into his journey, which is as much internal as external. It helps that the first half of the picture was so strong, that our recollection of the opening half hour drives nearly all interest in the rest, with him filling in the blanks.

Rooney Mara's role and performance has been criticized by some as a throwaway, and while her work as Saroo's girlfriend Lucy won't be the first discussion point coming out of the film, it shouldn't  anyway. It's entirely functional since we need to know the man that young boy has become and what his life evolved into in the twenty years since the train station, not to mention what he could potentially be risking or giving up by doing this. Her part is what it is, and the never uninteresting actress serves it well, despite the nagging feeling she could have been given more. The other half of the equation is Nicole Kidman, who as Sue gets opportunities in the latter half to convey a woman crumbling at the emotional distance that's been put between her and her family, which has more to do with the struggles of raising the far less adjusted adopted son than Saroo's secret urge to reconcile his past.               

Intelligently addressing universal issues involving memory and identity, Lion tells a worthwhile, important story that most will feel more fulfilled having experienced. As for whether it manipulates, all movies do. The real question is how well. Aside from an unnecessary ending coda that spends too much time reinforcing a point the preceding hour and a half made perfectly clear (an epidemic these days), this more than passes that test, and does it with two phenomenal performances in the same central role, one which could easily be remembered as the year's most satisfying acting comeback.