Tag Archives: true stories

Lost & Found


by Hope Madden

Inspirational, true-life tales – however tailor-made they seem to be for a big screen presentation – can be tough to deliver with integrity. In fact, the more tailor-made they seem, the tougher it can be.

Director Garth Davis manages to hit most of the right notes with his cinematic telling of Saroo Brierley’s amazing journey in Lion.

At 5-years-old, Saroo (played as a child by the impossibly cute and talented Sunny Pawar) follows his older brother to the train station where they’ll scrounge what they can from between seats and on the ground. But Saroo wanders off, falls asleep in a train car, and by the time he gets off, he’s thousands of miles from home – alone in a train station in Calcutta.

What follows – told with surprising restraint and solid focus – are the details of his struggle to survive and, decades later, to find his mother.

The adventure is harrowing. Davis chooses wisely between the events to explore deeply and those to leave ambiguous. We glimpse things that are clearly menacing but not fully explained because we’re seeing them through the eyes of a bewildered child. The result is a dark sense of all that could have occurred, not a sledge-hammer about the lurid details Saroo couldn’t possibly have articulated.

Once the film moves to Australia, where the boy relocates with an adoptive family, Davis again shares enough details to give the film a memorable sense of authenticity. The now grown and well-cared-for Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with longing, guilt and a crippling concern for the pain his birth-family must bear because of his absence.

Patel deserves credit for a performance unlike the work we’ve seen from him in previous efforts. As a performer, he has tended toward painfully earnest representations, an over-actor who relies heavily on hyperbolic reactions.

Here, though, is a far more nuanced turn – one that benefits immeasurably by the chemistry he shares with Nicole Kidman, playing his adoptive mother Sue Brierley.

Dependable as ever to explore the depths of grief, Kidman conveys the conflicting emotions that, in their way, inform Saroo’s struggle. She’s surrounded by solid performances from a strong ensemble.

The film does make its missteps. The talented Rooney Mara is both underused and overused. Her flatly written character contributes little to the overall narrative, and yet the romance crowds a story that has more interesting things to say.

Faults aside, Lion dives into grief, guilt and love with refreshing honesty to tell the most unbelievable story in a way that echoes with a human connection we can all appreciate.


God and Country

Hacksaw Ridge

by Hope Madden

Bathing an audience in violence – but violence in service of a noble cause – has become filmmaker Mel Gibson’s stock and trade.

Braveheart was a great movie – thrilling, self-righteous and violent as hell. But Gibson really hit paydirt as a director when he underpinned his gorefests with images of the victimhood of the Christian. (Or, of Christ himself.)

Gibson returns to what works with his latest, Hacksaw Ridge.

There is no question that the story of WWII veteran Desmond Doss not only deserves but requires our attention. A conscientious objector and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to bear arms and yet he single-handedly carried 75 injured soldiers to safety during a particularly bloody battle in Okinawa.

Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan burden the film with every cliché in the WWII movie arsenal, from the wholesome hometown love to the flatly stereotyped platoon mates to nearly every line in the film.

Yet, between Gibson’s skill behind the camera and Andrew Garfield’s commitment to his character, Hacksaw Ridge always manages to be better than the material. And there is really no denying Gibson’s knack for action, carnage and viscera – all in the service of non-violence, of course.

It was Doss’s faith that kept him strong in his non-violent beliefs, just as it was his faith that kept him courageous in battle. Whether you believe in God or you do not, you will admire Desmond Doss, and Garfield does him justice.

He’s goofy and layered and at no point does Doss’s own explanation of his faith feel like a sermon. Thank God.

Garfield also boasts lovely chemistry with just about every actor onscreen – this is particularly touching in some early scenes with Teresa Palmer, playing Doss’s hometown sweetheart Dorothy.

So, come for the wholesome message, stay for the flaming soldiers who’ll flail in unimaginable agony before your very eyes.

It isn’t tough to shock with violence when you’re re-telling the greatest story ever told, but to one-up the carnage in a war movie? Have you seen Platoon? Saving Private Ryan?

Well, Gibson has, and he won’t be intimidated. But give the man credit, these sequences are breathtakingly choreographed, as full of energy and clarity as they are human entrails. If you’re looking for an opportunity to satisfy your bloodlust while also celebrating pacifism, well, Gibson’s got you covered.


Reese Gone Wild


by Hope Madden

There may be no more personal, more individual an emotion or experience than grief. It is, by definition, a selfish act: just you and your loss. No one can determine for you the length, depth, duration or symptoms of your own pain. Cheryl Strayed is a case in point.

Wild tells the story of how Cheryl overcame the guilt, regret, shame and profound sense of loss that overcame her after her mother’s death. Cheryl’s is a unique tale, as she is a fascinatingly individual character, but the film mines for the universality in her pain and redemption.

Wild moves back and forth between Cheryl’s 1100 mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail and the memories that haunt her, past and present braiding together to form a clear picture of the woman emerging from her pain and the pretty jaw-droppingly dangerous behavior that pain wrought.

Though director Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club) film gets off to a slow start, Reese Witherspoon’s performance – aided by the sometimes terrifying, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny events of Strayed’s journey – compel rapt attention.

Witherspoon leaves her comfort zone, allowing Cheryl more vulnerability and ugliness than you might expect. Strayed is comfortable enough in her skin to examine and, eventually, accept all of her own failings, so presenting the character fully is a requirement for the film to work. Witherspoon understands this and gives easily the grittiest, most naturalistic performance of her career.

Witherspoon spends an awful lot of screen time alone, Strayed’s relationship with herself the larger conflict than her relationships with the inhospitable terrain, weather, circumstances and occasional creepy guy. Her pain and self loathing are impeccably drawn, never maudlin or false, and in Witherspoon’s scenes with the equally impressive Laura Dern she sews the seeds that bloom in her time alone onscreen.

The truth is that Strayed’s grief is not typical, and her behavior is certainly extreme, yet Vallee is content to create a somewhat safe structure for the adventure: the lengthy journey punctuated by nightmares and memories that give us a glimpse into the life Strayed was trying to shake off with her hike.

Still, the understated approach allows scenes to breathe, and Strayed’s true alone-ness seeps into certain frames in a way that is deeply unsettling and yet triumphant. And there are no two words better suited to Strayed’s experiences than unsettling and triumphant, so Vallee, Witherspoon and crew were certainly doing something right.