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Three Views: Focus

February 27, 2015

Focus Poster

Focus – A Warner Bros. Release

http://focusmovie.com

Release Date: February 27th, 2015
Rated 14A for coarse language and sexual content
Running Time: 105 minutes

Glenn Ficarra (director)
John Requa (director)

Glenn Ficarra (writer)
John Requa (writer)

Nick Urata (music)

Will Smith as Nicky
Margot Robbie as Jess
Adrian Martinez as Farhad
Gerald McRaney as Owens
Rodrigo Santoro as Garriga
BD Wong as Liyuan

Focus

Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) in Focus.

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Focus Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

What works so well about Focus, a con man story that has just as much fun playing the audience as the characters do one-upping each other, is that we are seduced into this world of deception, but also able to leave the theatre smiling.  Because of this, writer-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have pulled off a sort of magic trick, delivering a film that manages to be both gripping and pleasantly diverting, and incredibly clever without being too taxing on the brain.

Nicky (Will Smith) is a veteran con man, who excels at reading body language and slight of hand trickery, and makes his living through dirty betting and selling stolen goods on the black market.  But when he is seduced into showing the ropes to the brilliant aspiring pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie), who joins his team in New Orleans and becomes both his partner in crime and the bedroom, the effects of their relationship threaten to derail his latest job in Buenos Aires.

There is constant forward momentum to the twisting and turning plot, and the screenplay crackles along with sharply written dialogue, showing us elaborate cons and then using cool editing techniques to take us through the intricately staged setup.  The soundtrack is also pretty great, employing the iconic sounds of “Sympathy for the Devil” to give exhilarating rhythm to one of their biggest plays, in one of the best uses of The Rolling Stones song ever put on film.  This extended sequence is arguably the finest set piece that Focus has to offer, and is alone worth the price of admission.

At a briskly paced and always enjoyable 105 minutes, the film simply coasts by on the ample charms and immense likability of attractive leads Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who have great chemistry together and both shine in genuine movie star turns.  A sleek, sexy and incredibly entertaining ride, Focus is simply a ton of fun.

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Focus Review by Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a con man.  He helps run pickpocket rings where they steal watches and jewelry, skim credit cards, and watch the profits roll in.  When he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), she wants in on the game and insists he teach her everything he knows.  After being tested for skills, she is given entrance into Spurgeon’s group and together they get 1.2 million dollars – all in one season’s run of swindles.  But after every season the group disbands so they are not connected in case of legal action, and for three years, Nicky loses touch with Jess, only to run into her again on another con – this time where he is helping race car owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) trick his opponents into thinking that they have an advantage in order to raise bets.

Things get a little bit complicated, with nothing what it seems and no one to trust.  This is a classic story of the double cross, and double crossing again, which makes for a fun ride to come along for.  There also manages to be genuine suspense as the lies get thicker and thicker.  Focus is well filmed and the cast play their roles well, with a script that is of the just smart enough, but you can still turn your brain off variety.  Little touches and comments from earlier in the script play in later on, which keeps us engaged throughout.  Overall, this is a perfect mid-winter film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still takes itself seriously enough to deliver quality.

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Focus Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The title Focus, as explained by master pickpocket Apollo Robbins who consulted on and appears briefly in the film, refers to the misdirection used in their craft as well as in the best cons. The film is in two parts. The first half mainly set in New Orleans deals with the initiation of Jess (Margot Robbie) into the gang of thieves led by Nicky (Will Smith) as they work the crowds attending the annual super football match. The second half is set in Buenos Aires three years later with Nicky involved in a much more sophisticated con with a wealthy race car owner (Rodrigo Santoro) as the mark and Jess as an unexpected complication.

Written and directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus is a stylish film whose real locations provide a beautiful setting without detracting from the interactions between flawed but fascinating characters. Though as in many films the plot in hindsight strains credulity, the ride is worth it. The crowd scenes of pickpockets doing their work and the disposal of their spoils are particularly memorable, and there are a couple of nice twists along the way. The cast is excellent and the musical score featuring a number of pop tunes is a good fit to the action. I will never hear the backup singing to “Sympathy for the Devil” the same way again.

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Consensus: With genuinely likeable performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, and a sharply written screenplay full of clever twists, Focus is a fun and incredibly entertaining con man story, that moves quickly at 105 minutes. ★★★ (out of 4)

Review: Big News from Grand Rock

February 27, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Big News From Grand Rock PosterWhat if the plots of old movies ended up being mistaken for real news?  That’s the amusing premise behind Big News from Grand Rock, an easily enjoyable Canadian comedy that opens in limited release this weekend, after a successful run on the TIFF Film Circuit.  This is a small film, but it’s a lot of fun.

Leonard Crane (Ennis Esmer) is a reporter in the small town of Grand Rock, where nothing much newsworthy ever really happens, and their local paper survives on advertisements and puff pieces.  With the owner (Gordon Pinsent) planning to sell the paper and their offices, Leonard becomes determined to find a story to help save the publication.

So when the Bill Murray comedy Larger Than Life comes on TV, he writes a nice story about a man transporting an elephant, which becomes a hit around town.  Enlisting the help of the dude (Aaron Ashmore) at the video store, Leonard starts using the plots of old comedies, like Easy Money and Caddyshack, to make front page news.  But when he sees the medical thriller Extreme Measures, and publishes an article about secret experiments happening in Grand Rock, the mild mannered reporter ends up in over his head.

The story takes a different turn with the arrival of a big city reporter (Meredith MacNeill), who becomes determined to unravel the truth behind these seemingly preposterous events, but the screenplay by writer-director Daniel Perlmutter remains clever and entertaining right through to the end.  With the Midland, Ontario locations providing an attractive backdrop, and eminently likeable leading work from Ennis Esmer and the rest of the solid cast, Big News from Grand Rock is a thoroughly entertaining homegrown film that has a charming small town feel.

Bloor Cinema Release: Ballet 422

February 27, 2015

By John Corrado

Ballet 422A promising young dancer relegated to the lowest level of the company, Justin Peck was given the rare opportunity in 2013 to choreograph the 422nd new piece performed by the New York City Ballet.  The process is showcased in the pretty good backstage documentary Ballet 422, which opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this weekend.  Tickets and showtimes are right here.

The film follows the production from first rehearsal to world premiere, showing everything from the costume designers, to the lighting department and the orchestra.  Although sometimes a little too heavy on mundane preparation footage, without much in the way of tension or even interviews, this is still an interesting overview of the creative process behind staging an original ballet.

With a fairly fast paced running time of just 75 minutes, the film offers its fair share of pleasures, especially in the footage of the dancers rehearsing and brief glimpses of their opening night performance.  Directed by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who also gave us the spectacular dance piece NY Export: Opus Jazz a few years ago, Ballet 422 is beautifully shot and aesthetically pleasing, and for these reasons alone is worth seeing.

Also opening this weekend is Concerning Violence, which premiered at Hot Docs last year.  The film uses archival footage from the 1960s and ’70s to share the fascinating true story of Africa’s struggle to liberate themselves from colonial rule.  Tickets and showtimes for that one can be found right here.

Blu-ray Release: Big Hero 6

February 24, 2015

By John Corrado

Big Hero 6 Blu-ray

Fresh off winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Disney is releasing Big Hero 6 on Blu-ray today.  Following teenaged robotics genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his huggable health care companion Baymax (Scott Adsit), this is a beautifully animated film that mixes a superhero origin story with poignant themes of grief and letting go.

For these reasons alone, it deserves the Oscar.  Watching Big Hero 6 again, it’s amazing how flawlessly the film and characters all come together, delivering big entertainment with breakneck pacing that allows for both exciting action sequences, and some genuinely moving moments between Hiro and Baymax.  My full review is right here.

The Blu-ray includes two featurettes and several deleted scenes.  There’s also the Oscar-winning short Feast, a lovely animated piece that tells a charming story through the meals shared between a dog and his owner.  All worth seeing.

Big Hero 6 is 102 minutes and rated PG.

-John Corrado

Blu-ray Release: Whiplash

February 24, 2015

By John Corrado

Whiplash Blu-ray

Today, Sony Pictures is releasing the recent Oscar-winner Whiplash on Blu-ray.  Following the tense and often volatile relationship between aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), and his abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), this is a stunning music drama that plays with the charged intensity of a thriller.

Winning much deserved trophies for Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, this was one of the very best films of 2014, and is a must watch on Blu-ray.  With masterful work from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons,Whiplash is an exhilarating and emotionally powerful experience, that reaches a stunning crescendo.  My full review is right here.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with writer-director Damian Chazelle and J.K. Simmons, a TIFF Q&A with them and Miles Teller, an interesting deleted scene, and a lengthy featurette with professional musicians.  There’s also the original short that paved the way for the film.

Whiplash is 107 minutes and rated 14A.

-John Corrado

Criterion Release: Watership Down

February 24, 2015

By John Corrado

Watership Down Criterion Blu-ray

Director Martin Rosen’s 1978 animated classic Watership Down is being released on Blu-ray today, through the Criterion Collection.  Adapted from the classic novel by Richard Adams, the story follows a community of rabbits, who are under threat from modern development.

Although Watership Down takes its time in telling the story, this is a mature and beautifully animated film that keeps intact the spiritual and environmental overtones of the original book.  With lush images and beautiful music, including the Art Garfunkel song “Bright Eyes” over one of the most haunting sequences, this is a thoughtful and darkly realized film, rich with deeper meaning and subtext.

The Blu-ray includes a new interview with Martin Rosen, a talk with Guillermo Del Toro about the film’s place in animation history, picture-in-picture storyboards for the entire film, and the 2005 featurette Defining a Style.  There’s also an essay by comic book writer Gerard Jones.

Watership Down is 92 minutes and rated PG.

-John Corrado

Some Thoughts on the 87th Oscars

February 23, 2015

By John Corrado

J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne - Oscars 2015

The 87th Oscars unfolded last night, with Birdman taking home the top prize for Best Picture, along with Best Director and Best Original Screenplay trophies for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki’s mesmerizing work behind the single take magic trick.

The film triumphed over the early favourite Boyhood which many initially thought would win, with the sole award for Richard Linklater’s coming of age masterpiece being Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette, a deserving recognition of her twelve year dedication to the project.

The other big winner of the night was rightfully Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, also with four, including Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Original Score for Alexandre Desplat.

This was followed by Whiplash taking home three, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, along with Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing, all very well deserved.  Eddie Redmayne got Best Actor for his flawless portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and Julianne Moore won her first Best Actress trophy for her excellent performance as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer’s in the otherwise merely good Still Alice.

But the biggest surprise of last night came not in the winners, which all went to deserving recipients one way or another, but in the fact that Neil Patrick Harris ended up doing a pretty terrible job of hosting the show.  He started off on the right note with a fairly solid musical number, which received some nice and much welcome help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black, and I was actually kind of liking his act for about the first five minutes.

But from his questionable opening monologue onward, every time Neil Patrick Harris came back on stage, his jokes just kept falling flatter and flatter.  Did nobody tell him that the whole predictions thing was lame?  Octavia Spencer just looked uncomfortable with her involvement in his act, and a misjudged bit with David Oyelowo was also pretty awkward.  A sequence where the host spoofed Birdman by walking around in his underwear was just embarrassing, and was only worth it for a brief shot of Miles Teller playing the drums.

They could have easily nixed a lot of this filler stuff to have a much tighter show of awards and speeches, that didn’t stretch dangerously close to four hours.  And epic fail to Neil Patrick Harris for saying that Edward Snowden, the heroic whistleblower and subject of the urgent and timely Best Documentary Feature winner CitizenFour, couldn’t be there for “some treason.”  This was not cool, and easily the lowest comment in a night otherwise surprisingly ripe with some refreshingly progressive speeches.

Yes, there were some major low points last night, in what had to be one of the most uneven telecasts that I have ever seen.  Another one of the worst moments was that garishly awful performance of “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, which was an abysmal train wreck. For my money, the song still absolutely sucks, and it’s embarrassing that it was even nominated.  As the show approached the three hour mark, a timeslot that went way over time, we all of the sudden had Lady Gaga belting out songs from The Sound of Music, for no apparent reason.

But there were also a lot of big highlights.  As I mentioned earlier, the winners were deserving in every one of the categories.  Sure, there were a few places where I might have voted differently, but there’s not one category here where I’m dissatisfied with the winners or find them undeserving, and that’s worth celebrating.  I loved all eight of the Best Picture nominees, and the fact that they all won something is also worth celebrating, even if it was just Best Sound Editing for American Sniper.  

Disney was the big winner in the animated categories, with the excellent Big Hero 6 beating out the equally outstanding How To Train Your Dragon 2 for Best Animated Feature, and the lovely Feast taking home the award for Best Animated Short.  There were also a lot of emotional and surprisingly memorable acceptance speeches throughout the night.  When Pawel Pawlikowski accepted the Best Foreign Language trophy for his haunting Ida, the director refreshingly spoke right through that infamous “cut off” music, which kept popping up at the most inappropriate times during the show.

J.K. Simmons was the Best Supporting Actor frontrunner, and he still managed to deliver a gracious and humble speech.  When Patricia Arquette took home Best Supporting Actress later on, her acceptance become an impassioned call for gender equality, in one of the night’s best moments.  Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore were also expectedly gracious and emotional.  Another one of the best speeches came from young writer Graham Moore, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game, and spoke candidly about being suicidal at sixteen, urging outsiders to “stay weird” and “stay different.”

Easily the best moment of the night came from John Legend and Common’s powerful performance of their song “Glory” from Selma, with a choir of backup singers under a set modelled after the bridge used in the iconic Civil Rights march.  When they retook the stage to accept the trophy for Best Original Song, they collectively delivered the best acceptance speeches of the night, met with a standing ovation and much of the audience in tears.  That song is a masterpiece, and their win is monumental.

As for the rest of the show, they could have easily paired back a lot of the terrible jokes, and hopefully next year will bring back someone reliable like Ellen DeGeneres or Billy Crystal to host.  But at the end of the night, all that really matters are the films themselves and the recognition of those behind them, which is something that these Oscars thankfully got right.  Please see below for a complete list of nominees, with the winners highlighted in bold.

Read more…

Three Views: McFarland

February 20, 2015

McFarland Poster

McFarland – A Walt Disney Pictures Release

http://movies.disney.com/mcfarland-usa

Release Date: February 20th, 2015
Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language
Running Time: 128 minutes

Niki Caro (director)

Christopher Cleveland (writer)
Bettina Gilois (writer)

Grant Thompson (screenplay)

Antonio Pinto (music)

Kevin Costner as Jim White
Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz
Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles
Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas
Rafael Martinez as David Diaz
Hector Duran as Johnny Sameniego
Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes
Michael Aguero as Damacio Diaz
Diana Maria Riva as Señora Diaz
Omar Leyva as Señor Diaz
Maria Bello as Cheryl White
Morgan Saylor as Julie White
Elsie Fisher as Jamie White

McFarland

Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) and Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) in McFarland.

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McFarland Review By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

“There ain’t nothing American Dream about this place,” depressed teenager Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) says of his dirt poor California town in McFarland, one of the most resonant lines of dialogue in this latest underdog sports movie from Disney.  The true story of how determined coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) turned a group of seven struggling high schoolers into champion-level cross country runners in 1987, this is a very well acted and incredibly inspiring crowdpleaser, that is rousingly successful every step of the way.

When Jim moves to McFarland with his wife (Maria Bello) and their two daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher), they feel out of place in the largely Mexican small town.  But through the running group, which Thomas reluctantly joins to get out of detention, a community starts to form between them.  Their team also includes the overweight but hardworking Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez), and his two athletic brothers David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero), who tirelessly work for their father (Omar Leyva) in the fields, as their mother (Diana Maria Riva) keeps them on track and becomes one of the team’s greatest supporters.

Director Niki Caro has assembled a very well crafted studio picture, that is both beautifully shot and impeccably acted.  Kevin Costner does rock solid work as the tough coach who learns to empathize with and understand his students, and the young cast of relative newcomers are also excellent.  This is an inspirational story that reaches an appropriately rousing and triumphant conclusion, but there is also a grit to McFarland that keeps the film grounded, touching on issues of poverty and the often repetitious nature of working towards a better life.  There is genuine heartbreak here, and that’s what makes this sports film succeed.

It’s a huge compliment to say that McFarland harkens back to the classics of the sports genre, the sort of feel good drama that is becoming increasingly rare in this day and age.  Yes, the film follows a tried and true formula, but it does so incredibly well.  Because even if we can predict where the screenplay might end up or already know the outcome of the true story, the film earns every single one of the emotional beats.  We really come to care about these characters, and a great deal of suspense is allowed to build up during the running scenes, showing their struggle to push themselves further and further every time.

These are kids who get up at the crack of dawn to work in the fields, before going to school and training, and it’s this determination that makes the story continue to resonate.  With a distinctly Mexican flavour that is both respectful and celebratory of the culture, McFarland is a rousing celebration of hard work and perseverance against all odds, that soars to inspirational heights.

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McFarland Review by Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on the true story of the McFarland cross-country running team, McFarland stars Kevin Costner as Coach White, who after an altercation coaching the football team at his previous school, is transferred to the small town of McFarland, where he is placed as the local high school’s track and field instructor.

At first White has trouble adjusting to the small California town, where most of the residents are of Mexican descent, and himself, his wife (Maria Bello), and two daughters stick out like sore thumbs.  But as he gets to know his new neighbours and the teens he coaches, he and his family start to realize that the people who live in McFarland are exactly the kind you would want to have as neighbours and friends.  After noticing incredible running talent in a group of the kids, White puts together a cross country team of seven boys and together they work towards trying to qualify for the first ever State Championship in 1987.

The whole cast does a great job, and the young performers who play the McFarland cross country team are all incredibly nuanced in their portrayals, in particular Carlos Pratts who plays lead runner Thomas Valles.  The film works especially well because of this, and while it is a typical sports film, McFarland delivers exactly what you want.  Plus the fact that it is based on a true story, and the experiences and lives of the people of McFarland still ring true today, raises it up an extra notch.  It is a film about poverty, finding your place, and trying hard to succeed even against all odds.  Well filmed and paced, McFarland is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, and deservedly so.

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McFarland Review By Maureen Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s feel good, inspirational movie McFarland is based on true events in 1987, when teacher and coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) reluctantly finds himself working at the mainly hispanic McFarland, California high school, and against all odds ends up creating a state championship level cross country running team.

At first, Jim and his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and their two daughters, fifteen year old Julie (Morgan Saylor) and ten year old Jamie (Elsie Fisher), are miserable in McFarland.  They experience a cultural clash and language barriers.  Jim finds his students more focused on heading off to their crop picking jobs than participating in class.  It’s when he notices these kids run everywhere and are really fast, that he approaches principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) about setting up a cross country running team.

The first student he notices is Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), who is given the choice of detention or the team.  Next are the Diaz brothers, overweight Danny (Ramero Rodriguez), David (Rafeal Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero).  So long as they can convince their no-nonsense but bighearted mother Señora Diaz (Diana Maria Riva) that this won’t interfere with their crop picking work with their father (Omar Leyva).

There are many nicely acted scenes as Jim White gets to know the team members and starts to understand the reality of the poverty these kids experience.  By the time they are high school age, it’s expected they will pick crops before and after school to help support their families.  Watching these boys gel together as a team is truly inspirational.  The cinematography in McFarland is excellent.  The poverty in the area is believably portrayed, and the beauty of the rolling hills where they train is nicely shot.  The race scenes are also nicely filmed, and anyone who appreciates running will enjoy these sequences.

What works in McFarland is the authenticity of the performances from Kevin Costner and all the young actors playing the runners.  Throughout the film, you find yourself rooting for these guys.  Their transformation to state champions is heartwarming.  Also heartwarming are the ways Jim White and his family are accepted into the community by their hispanic neighbours.

Anyone who enjoys an inspirational, believe in yourself and those around you story, will appreciate McFarland.  Those who are into running will especially enjoy this one.  Suitable for older kids and adults, this is a wonderful family movie that can’t help but inspire.  Stay through the end credits to see footage of the original 1987 McFarland runners, with updates as to what they’re doing with their lives 27 years later.

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Consensus: With excellent performances from Kevin Costner and the entire cast, McFarland is a beautifully filmed and very well crafted sports movie, that is rousingly successful as an inspirational crowdpleaser. ★★★½ (out of 4)

Review: Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

February 20, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine Poster

After premiering at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival last year, the gutting and critically acclaimed documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is finally coming back to Toronto and opening at the Carlton today.  Tickets and showtimes are right here.

Matthew Shepard had just moved to Laramie, Wyoming to study in the fall of 1998, when he was brutally beaten by two homophobes who dragged him into a field and left him to die, a hate crime that attracted the attention of people across the world, and remains one of the most notorious in American history.

Directed by his former classmate Michele Josue, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine uses a mix of archival footage and interviews with his parents as well as other close friends, to create an intimate time capsule of his tragically short life.

The result is a powerful portrait of Matt Shepard as the caring young man that he clearly was, a disturbing account of his brutal murder and the ensuing trial, and a moving reassurance of the profound meaning that his life continues to have.  This is heartbreaking but highly recommended viewing.

Review: Siddharth

February 20, 2015

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Siddharth Poster

After premiering at TIFF in 2013, and kicking around the festival circuit since then, the Indian drama Siddharth is finally circling back to Toronto and starting a limited run at the Bell Lightbox this weekend.  Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Desperate for money to support his family, the caring but underemployed Mahandra Saini (Rajesh Tailang) sells his son Siddharth (Irfan Khan) for work.  But when the young boy mysteriously disappears from the child labour factory, Mahandra struggles to find him.

Although with contradicting information from other people, and not even a picture for the police to use as reference, the odds of father and son becoming reunited are growing increasingly slim, especially as the weeks go by and his desperate search stretches further across India.

A pretty good sophomore effort from Canadian director Richie Mehta, Siddharth is a somewhat slight but fairly well made and often involving film.  The screenplay feels believable in its sensitive telling of an emotional story, sadly inspired by a real life encounter between the director and a man searching for his missing son.  Although don’t go expecting an uplifting tale, Siddharth is still worth seeing, especially for Rajesh Tailang’s solid leading work.

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