Friday, March 24, 2017

LION (2016): The Return Home to India

Lion is one of those movies that begins strong, slows down significantly around halfway through, and picks up somewhat towards the end.  Yet that first half of the film is magnificent.

In 1986, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his family live in a small village in India and struggle daily to put food on the table.  His brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) often steals coal from trains and engages in other schemes to raise money.  Their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), makes a living through collecting rocks.  When adding on the time spent raising her three children, such grueling labor appears almost to be too much for her.

One evening Saroo convinces Guddu to let him go along with his brother on one of his sojourns towards the local train station.  Saroo too tired to continue following his brother lays down on the bench for a nap.  When Saroo wakes up later, he enters a train in the station to see what is inside.   Saroo ends up locked inside the train and unable to get off.  The train then leaves the station heading east, and Saroo is unable to escape the train until its arrival in Calcutta – approximately1500 kilometers away.

Raised in the heart of India, Saroo is unable to speak the Bengal dialect.  Nor is he able to accurately tell anyone exactly where he came from.   After some misadventures, he ends up in an orphanage where conditions are brutal.  However, a young Australian couple eventually adopts him.  His new parents include Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham).  Later, the couple also adopts another Indian boy named Mantosh.  Unlike Saroo who seems to adopt easily to his new home, Mantosh is emotionally troubled.

This ends the first half of the film.  The second half involved a grownup Saroo (Dev Patel), who seemingly does well in life but who is haunted by the family that he left behind in India.  Sue and John are loving parents to Saroo.  Saroo also has a beautiful girlfriend named Lucy (Rooney Mara).  Yet he is unhappy.  He obsesses over where he came from and eventually, through studying Google maps, discovers the location of his India home – a village by the name of Ganesh Talai.  Saroo in 2012 then journeys to India and finds his biological mother and sister still alive.  Tragically, Guddu had died back in 1986 when struck by a train.

Ironically, the child actors Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate provide more emotional punch to Lion than any of the adult (and professional) actors save Nicole Kidman.  Kidman’s acting, as well as a strong storyline, is what keep the two halves of the film together.  The two child actors play their roles perfectly.  Sunny Pawar brings warmth to his role, and Abhishek Bharate is entirely believable as a street-smart kid who cares deeply for his younger brother.  Dev Patel his role as the adult Saroo conventionally well.  Rooney Mara as the girlfriend adds practically nothing to the film.

There had to be a second half to complete this film.  And at 118 minutes, the film moves along at a good pace.  Sadly, we lose the magic during this second half that the child actors bring to the beginnings of the film.  Inevitably, there was a letdown.   

Still, the first half of the film shows remarkably well what is both fascinating and sad about a great country like India. India consists of beautiful people who in large part live in poverty.  The photography of Lion portrays this well.  We see the beauty in the faces of Saroo’s family and fellow villagers.  We see the poverty during the train trip to Calcutta.  This footage allows us to understand why Saroo so long wants to return to his India family.

March 24, 2017

 © Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016): From the Other Side of the World

The subject matter of The Eagle Huntress is about as foreign and strange in 21st Century America as is possible.   In the western world, our concerns revolve around Russian hacking and virtual reality.  At least for one 13-year-old Mongolian girl, her interest is to become the first female to take part in a tradition that goes back many centuries.  Aisholpan Nurgaiv wishes to raise and train an eagle, with the help of her father, and take part in a foxhunt up until.  Until her arrival, this was an activity reserved for males who were mostly adults.

Aisholpan does not disappoint us.  First, in the provincial Mongolian capital of Olgii, Aisholpan wins a contest against seventy seasoned eagle hunters demonstrating both her skills and the skills of the eagle she trained.  She next accompanies her father alone into the Mongolian mountains where her and her eagle capture and kills a fox.  This adventure takes place over a number of weeks, and temperatures in the wilderness fall to some forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Though these are the highlights of this 87-minute film, there is so much more to recommend this movie.  Through the use of drones to film the training and hunting scenes we receive breathless footage of the Mongolian terrain.  The cameras film Aisholpan and her father riding horses across the country while training the eagle and while pursuing the fox.  We watch the eagle sore from perch to perch.  We see the strength and agility of Aisholpan herself as she perseveres in her quest.

We sense almost immediately in the documentary that neither Aisholpan nor her father, Rys Nurgaiv, are ordinary individuals.  Tradition does not hold them back.  Most of the eagle hunters throughout the countryside do not feel that Aisholpan’s pursuits are the place for a girl – especially a girl as young as she is.

Aisholpan  does not come from a wealthy family.  They live in a small home a long ways away from the closest city.  Aisholpan and her brothers and sisters have to attend school many miles away from home.  This means they are usually only at home on weekends. 

Aisholpan, we learn, is so physically strong that she can beat all the boys in her class at wrestling.   Yet she has many of the same interests as other adolescent girls.  Aisholpan paints her nails like that of the other girls and struggles with her math lessons.  She does her best to help with household chores and she appears to be very close to her brothers and sisters.  We never sense arrogance in Aisholpan regarding her accomplishments.  At all times throughout the film, Aisholpan remains charming and likeable.

This was director Otto Bell’s first movie.   In some ways, The Eagle Huntress comes together a bit too easily.  We’re never quite sure how a film crew could have known that Aisholpan would persevere in her quest.  It would have been helpful to learn how Bell stumbled upon this subject matter.

Yet Aisholpan still seems to me to be a special girl.  Obviously, without modern technology her story would remain untold.  Still, here is a girl who does not rely upon this technology when traveling out into an extremely unforgiving terrain and accomplishing what she has to accomplish.  In this respect, her relationship with nature and the world make this movie almost timeless.  The Eagle Huntress is certainly a great deal more refreshing than endless sequels or films held together only by special effects.

January 16, 2017 

©  Robert S. Miller 2017

Sunday, November 13, 2016


No one truly expected this.  The only ones predicting Trump would win were Trump-enthusiasts who hoped for such a result but had no logical reason to give as to why it may happen.  The pollsters were as wrong as they could possibly be.  And I thought it would be close, but I did not think that Trump could win.  Now there are people scratching their heads and there are protesters outraged in the streets.

Fortunately, the two candidates and President Barack Obama seem to have behaved decently since November 8.  In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump for perhaps the first time sounded presidential.  Hillary Clinton showed a great deal of poise in her concession speech.  And our President has shown nothing but grace in his public remarks concerning the upcoming transition period.  If the three can continue such behavior, the transition will go smoothly and the country will have far less to fear.  For Donald Trump, he will continually need to resist the temptation to be less than presidential for the next four years.

Unfortunately, many media members have not behaved with equal dignity, and this is especially true of certain writers at The New York Times.  The editorial staff at the Times is known for their moderate left and left-leaning positions.  Many of their columnists are now engaged in shaming of voters.  In their minds, a Trump victory was entirely due to voter backlash, anger and resentment.  Columnist Charles Blow went so far as to suggest America elected a bigot.  While the term bigot is easy to apply and difficult to refute, one understands Blow’s concerns with Trump’s history of remarks regarding women and Hispanics.  But Blow also implies that the voters welcomed Trump’s alleged bigotry when casting their votes.  Yet to imply this only one day after the fact could also show that Blow is guilty of jumping to conclusions without evidence to back up with what he says.  Blow does not know what is in the heart of the voter.

More comical are the examples of Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, two economists who found being Times columnists more lucrative than being scholars.  Thomas Friedman pitifully laments that he now feels homeless in America.  Since Friedman married Ann Bucksbaum, a member of one of the 100 richest families in America, I don’t think Friedman will have to worry soon about begging upon the street. 

Paul Krugman is a bit poorer than Friedman, with Krugman only having around $2.5 million in the bank, but he is no less prone to hyperbole.  Krugman continues even after the election to espouse the “false equivalency” argument when it comes to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  His argument is that since Trump’s lies and sins are so much more egregious than those of Hillary Clinton, the press should focus almost exclusively on Trump’s defective character.  This makes total sense to anyone incapable of admitting there is another side to any argument.  And there’s no question that Trump’s public behavior is more scandalous (and therefore “newsworthy) than that of Clinton.  This does not make Hillary Clinton a more moral person, however.  I’d like to leave questions of personal morality to God and not to Paul Krugman, but it’s Krugman who throws out absolution to those he agrees with while castigating with whom he disagrees.

With all of their wonderful righteousness and wisdom, one asks how neither Friedman nor Krugman saw the election of Trump as a possibility.  I doubt either Friedman or Krugman in forming their opinions went out to the countryside to access the mood of rural voters or visit urban areas in decline like Flint, Michigan.  Both of these writers are out of touch.

The one Times columnist who came closest to getting it right was, surprisingly, Maureen Dowd.  She did not like either candidate, and she felt both candidates had deep flaws.  Nor was she willing to go lightly on the Democratic Party for losing sight of the blue-collared voter.  Despite whichever candidate she preferred, she felt the Democratic Party’s condescension towards working class individuals left many such voters feeling they had no other option but to turn Trump.

The protests on the street show the significant dissatisfaction with the outcome. These will continue for some time and, so long as the protests do not turn violent, do send a useful message.  Yet protesters also need to understand a couple of things.  They can chant all they want that Donald Trump is not their president, but there is no evidence that Trump won the presidency unfairly or illegally.  Hard-working individuals cast their vote for Trump.  No protester has the right to say that their opinion is more important than that of any of these voters.  Also, if love truly “trumps” hate, as the protestors like to proclaim, they could start by demonstrating their acceptance of people who think differently from them.

If the aim of detractors of Trump is make him look bad rather than find a way to help the country, no worthwhile message is being sent.  Any criticism of Trump must instead keep him on track while forcing him to behave presidentially.

I do not endorse any of the political parties in the U.S.  Like many other citizens, no party completely represents my interests – and maybe it’s not possible for such a party to exist.  I have a number of positions that align me with the Democratic Party, others that align me with the Republican Party, some that align me with the Libertarian Party and others that align me with no party at all.  Politics, in any case, should not define any individual.  Every voter will face a wrong outcome many times during their lives.  That does not mean life as we know it comes to an end.

© Robert S. Miller 2016

November 13, 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

BOB DYLAN: And the Nobel Prize for Literature

The prizes awarded to Bob Dylan include an Oscar, a Golden Globe award, a number of Grammy awards, the Pulitzer Prize, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Yet Bob Dylan understands more than most what such awards mean: very little.  Since the announcement, Dylan has made no public statement regarding the award.  Nor has there been any acknowledgement that Dylan will attend the Nobel ceremony.   Apparently, this is causing dismay.

The committee referred to Dylan as having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  With the announcement of Dylan’s name as winner, you could hear gasps in the audience.  A small number of authors also took umbrage – probably because they did not receive the award.  Some snubbed had unkind words about Dylan.  Others seem to feel providing the award to someone so popular is beneath the dignity of the Nobel Prize committee. 

I suppose some history of the Nobel Prize for Literature is necessary.  Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, purportedly created the Nobel Prize out of sense of guilt due to his profiting from the sales of arms.  In his will, he bequeathed his fortune to finance the Nobel committee.  So far as literature goes, members select the award on an annual basis.  The committee includes professors of literature, members of various literary societies, former winners of the prize, and presidents of various writing organizations.  The committee probably doesn’t include any ditch diggers.

The first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature was Sully Prudhomme, a French poet, in 1901. Next we had Theodor Mommsen from Germany, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson of Norway, Frédéric Mistral of France, José Echegaray of Spain, Henryk Sienkiewicz of Poland and Giosuè Carducci of Italy.  We can forgive even literary professors for being unfamiliar with these authors. The first memorable writer to receive the award was Rudyard Kipling in 1907, and he was likely controversial enough for the committee to then not select any other winners that were household names prior to World War I.

There were some fairly well known authors who did not receive the award, however.  This would include Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Admittedly, some of these writers died too young to ever win the award.  Still, these were deserving authors who we will long remember.  In other words, the Nobel Prize committee was often wrong.

Like most committees, the Nobel committee from the start was afraid to generate controversy.  Individual critics, on the other hand, are sometimes very contentious.  And because committees make so many compromises, the selections by the Nobel committee were often uninteresting.  Some of its better choices only came about following criticism that the committee needed to expand its horizons.  Even in recent years, the committee could not bring itself to award Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg the Nobel Prize – almost certainly rejected because of the controversial nature of their works.  Cormac McCarthy is a living writer who may still receive the award, but time is running out for him as well.

So that brings us back to Bob Dylan – the songwriter from Hibbing (in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range) who many continue to accuse of being unable to sing.  One Iron Range writer had fun with Dylan’s critics: “To those on the Iron Range that still might not appreciate Dylan, they should know that the Nobel Prize is the Stanley Cup of literature.”  (For those who do not understand the joke, the United States Hockey Hall of Fame is in Eveleth, Minnesota, which is about 25 miles away from Hibbing and also in the heart of the Iron Range.)

While in the end it really shouldn’t matter, there certainly could be a lot worse choices for this award.  Dylan has made a number of controversial stands – some probably wrongheaded.  Yet he kept himself almost always non-partisan and never voiced support for any politician.  Whether you like or dislike his songs, he certainly had a personal impact on many individuals that many writers who won the Nobel Prize never did.  Unlike so many recipients of the award, Dylan’s reach goes far beyond just those college students or professors whose greatest interest in an artist is the kind of treatise they can write about the artist.

© Robert S. Miller 2016

October 26, 2016