Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Lion and I, Daniel Blake

It feels like the "based on a true story" tag exists on just about every movie nowadays. This alarming frequency tends to dilute any semblance of realism meant to be injected into the story. But in rare real-life instances, the truth is just too amazing to discredit, and that certainly exists in the debut drama from Garth Davis, Lion.

As a five year-old boy living in the slums of India, Saroo (Sunny Pawar/Dev Patel) is accidentally separated from his brother and mistakenly travels 1,600 km across the country. Lost from his family, the young boy is left to fend for himself on the devilish streets of Calcutta until he is taken in and adopted by a couple living abroad in Australia. But as Saroo grows up under the roof of wealth and privilege in his new home, a memory from his childhood is triggered and prompts him to venture back to India in search of his lost family.

Lion possesses a far greater appeal in retrospect than as it unfolds on the big screen in real time. And once the story shifts to an adult Saroo, there's an abruptness to the character's widely evolving emotions. From sadness, to resentment and eventual acceptance of the life he's been forced to endure, these feelings are highlighted but never actually earned. As a result, Lion struggles to break the emotional barrier necessary to elevate its sentimental finale to appropriate heights. From a filmmaking standpoint, Garth Davis delivers adequate direction that's enhanced by majestic cinematography and a memorable score courtesy of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran. Much has also been made about Nicole Kidman's performance but, even during a year of thin competition within the Supporting Actress race, it fails to leave a lasting impression. Lion's remarkable true story isn't handled with the care it deserves, yet the film's heart-warming conclusion helps salvage this otherwise flawed work.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

In another exemplary illustration of the human spirit, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Loach delivers his latest award-winning effort, I, Daniel Blake. Any time a film captures a Palm D'Or prize, the highest achievable award at the Cannes Film Festival, it immediately attracts attention. And with all eyes targeting I, Daniel Blake, this frustratingly honest drama successfully stands up to its lofty praises.

After suffering from a heart attack, laborer Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is told by his physician that returning to work could develop into a life-threatening issue and advises him not to. As Daniel tries to apply for government assistance due to his delicate situation, a lack of personal attention to his case snow-piles into a laundry list of complications that keep him from receiving help. While fighting to have his appeal case heard, Daniel befriends a single mother (Hayley Squires) struggling to provide for her children. Together they try to take on a system clearly built to work against them.

What director Ken Loach is able to accomplish with his latest endeavor is nothing short of extraordinary. I, Daniel Blake is a modestly-shot film humanized on the shoulders of its unknown leading actor, Dave Johns. This protest film addresses an unforgiving British welfare system through the examination of its endearing title character. Through a blend of touchingly-funny dialogue and Johns' performance, it becomes impossible to hope for anything other than the best for Daniel. However, life can be so cruel and with every bit of rejection along the way, the audience wishes even harder for a fair resolution. Alongside Dave Johns, supporting star Hayley Squires provides an exceptional turn as well. Both of their Oscar prospects seem dim, but it's an earnest screenplay and towering performances that transform I, Daniel Blake into an overlooked festival darling.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

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