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LITTLE BOY

The title of Alejandro Monteverde’s World War II fable was, of course, the code name of one of the atomic devices dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, so it’s appropriate that the movie should be a different sort of bomb. Terribly earnest and earnestly terrible, “Little Boy” wants to be a parable of the power of forgiveness and faith, but is so insufferably cloying that it’s difficult to keep from scoffing at it. Its theological implications are also really weird.

The story is set in the little town of O’Hare, California where seven-year old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is the smallest kid around, such a shrimp that local Doc Fox (Kevin James) is talking about possible dwarfism. As such he’s bullied mercilessly, especially by Fox’s son Freddy (Matthew Miller). Thankfully Pepper has a buddy in his father James (Michael Rapaport), a mechanic helped in his work by volatile older son London (David Henrie). James and Pepper share boys’ adventures together, gleaned from comic books and movie serials like those featuring Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), a magician who’s also a crime-fighter.

The plot kicks in when London tries to volunteer for army service but is rejected for flat feet, leading James to go off in his place. Word soon arrives that James is MIA in the Philippines, and while wife Emma (Emily Watson) prays for his safety, even as a POW, London can’t control his anger, which is fed by local troublemaker Sam (Ted Levine), whose son was among the dead at Pearl Harbor. Their hatred is directed at Hashimoto (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), the only Japanese-American in town, and is shared by Pepper, now without any protection from Freddy and his pals. There’s a moment of peace when he’s chosen by Ben Eagle, who comes to town for a live appearance, to join his act on stage and receive supernatural powers to move objects at will—an ability he hopes might be useful in bringing his father home. But Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), the kindly parish priest, tells him that the real power is God’s, and Pepper might move Him to act by performing charitable acts (the seven corporal works of mercy, in Catholic terminology)—most notably by befriending Hashimoto, a task that Pepper undertakes reluctantly, especially since it will bring him contempt from the townsmen, and London in particular.

Much of the film is devoted to the budding relationship between Pepper and Hashimoto, who aids the boy in fulfilling the various tasks that Father Oliver has assigned him. And though Hashimoto doesn’t go quite so far as to teach Pepper martial arts by having him remove the slur painted on his car, he does encourage him to stand up like a samurai against his tormentor—which leads him to clock Freddy with his lunch pail—after which the younger Fox promptly disappears from the narrative entirely, even though his widower dad keeps trying to hit on Emma, whom he resumes is now an eligible widow. Incident is piled on incident—Hashimoto is predictably attacked by London and Sam, for example (which conveniently allows Pepper to fulfill the injunction to visit the jailed and the sick).

The oddest aspects of the script, however, have to deal with Pepper’s supposed telekinetic ability, which is confirmed for the credulous townsmen when London’s demand that his brother move a nearby mountain happens to coincide with a minor earthquake. That leads Pepper to attempt using the power across the sea all the way to Japan to bring the war to an end and his father home; and when the nuclear Little Boy does the job, O’Hare’s version is hailed by the riotous denizens as being behind the deed (which certainly puts Father Oliver’s “hand of God” explanation in a rather odd theological light).

But the film isn’t finished there. James is reported to have died in an attempt to escape a Japanese internment camp in the last stages of the war, and a memorial service brings the whole town out to mourn him (including Hashimoto, recently recovered from the attack on him). But of course writers Monteverde and Pepe Portillo, who have gone to every length to hammer home their messages about the power of faith up to this point, whatever the cost in logical or religious terms, can’t be satisfied with such a downbeat close, and employ an absurd narrative twist to contrive a happy—and supposedly uplifting—ending.

As a religious parable, “Little Boy” is pretty goofy; as a movie it’s simply inept. To be fair, Bernardo Trujillo’s period production design, the sets by Jay Aroesty and Jorge Barba and the costumes by Laura Jean Shannon and Rebecca Gregg are quite good, given the exigencies of what must have been a modest budget. But Andrew Cadelago’s cinematography renders them all in over-bright compositions. (And the sequences purporting to show clips for the Ben Eagle serials are atrocious. The Republic efforts of the forties might have been bargain-basement affairs, but they never looked this bad.)

Among the cast, veterans Watson, Wilkinson and Tagawa bring a note of dignified restraint to the proceedings, and Henrie brings a hint of complexity to London. (James tries hard to appear serious, but is little more successful at it than Jackie Gleason was.) But the rest of the actors are encouraged to mug badly, from Levine as London’s hotheaded friend to Abraham Benrubi as the mentally-challenged guy who lives in the Busbee garage and even Rapaport as the solicitous father. Miller in particular chews the scenery to the utmost. Worst of all, Salvati, who’s rarely offscreen, is cute but totally at sea, hesitant and unable to carry off his big moments, like an emotional breakdown at his dad’s funeral.

But it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have carried off such a misguided piece of religious pabulum. Sincere but silly, “Little Boy” bungles its good intentions in a welter of mixed signals and mangled messages.

THE WATER DIVINER

Who would have expected that Russell Crowe was such a softie? For his first directorial effort, the Australian actor has chosen a sentimental period tale about a farmer from down under who travels to Turkey in 1919 to search for the three sons presumed killed in the battle of Gallipoli four years earlier, using his skill as a water diviner to locate their remains. Crowe also plays the fellow as a dewy-eyed bloke who bonds easily with a cheeky little Turkish boy and more gradually with the tyke’s gorgeous mother while in Istanbul, and only a bit more haltingly with a Turkish officer assisting the British in locating the remains of the dead on the battlefield.

The script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios seems inspired to some extent by “Saving Private Ryan.” Crowe plays Joshua Connor, a part-time dowser who raised three rambunctious sons with his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie): Arthur (played as a youth by Jack Patterson and later by Ryan Corr); Henry (Ben Norris, and later Ben O’Toole); and Edward (Aidan Smith, then James Fraser). In a series of flashbacks, we see him, among other things, reading stories from the “Arabian Nights” to the boys, and in one instance recuing them when they’re caught in a terrible dust storm.

But he also encouraged their service to King and Country, and when World War I broke out, supported their enlistment. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Aussies and New Zealanders who took part in the disastrous campaign of 1915, when the Allies futilely attempted to establish a beachhead on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula between April, 1915 and January, 1916 and often perished in the effort. (Periodic flashbacks show them in the thick of machine-gun fire and hand-to-hand combat.) All three of the Connor boys were presumed dead, and Eliza never forgave Joshua for encouraging them to serve. Eventually she committed suicide.

After persuading the local priest to bury her, reluctantly, in hallowed ground, Connor proceeds to Turkey to search for his boys’ remains. He’s almost immediately won over by young Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who seizes his bag and leads him on a chase to the hotel run by his mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni). Omer wants to stand in for his brother—presumed dead in battle—in more ways than one, but Ayshe, more cosmopolitan in her outlook, refuses to accept that her husband is dead and insists on remaining unmarried. Connor is quickly enchanted by Orhan, and though it takes Ayshe longer to warm to him—she blames Australians for her husband’s disappearance—he eventually wins her over as well. Omer, to say the least, is not pleased.

Connor, officially blocked by the British occupiers from going to Gallipoli, gets there surreptitiously and is unofficially aided by Hughes (Jai Courtney), the Brit charged with overseeing the recovery of bodies, as well as Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who led the Turkish defenses at Gallipoli, and his Sergeant, Jemal (Cem Yilmaz). When Connor’s uncanny skill leads to the discovery of the remains of Henry and Edward, it encourages Hasan to investigate the fate of Arthur, and it turns out that he might have survived and been taken prisoner. That leads Connor on a mission to find him, in which the British authorities are again unhelpful but Hasan, who’s planning to join Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist campaign against Greek invaders, proves once more an unlikely ally.

To this point, “The Water Diviner” has been schmaltzy but generally agreeable in a determinedly old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, in the last act it moves into fantasy territory (featuring whirling dervishes, of all things) as Connor joins Hasan on a journey to the front lines in the hope that he’ll find out what happened to Arthur. This portion of the film strains to tie up the story threads in a way that audiences will find agreeably uplifting. Even here, however, it has the considerable benefit of portraying the Turks not in the usual fashion of brutal thugs, but in a positive light. (The Brits and Greeks, on the other hand, come off rather poorly, with a couple of exceptions like Courtney’s Hughes.) In Ergodan’s hands Hasan is a figure of dignity, principle and purpose, and though Bastoni’s Omer proves a boor beneath his surface polish, even Yilmaz’s bumptious sergeant emerges as heroic. It goes without saying, moreover, that Kurylenko is lovely and little Georgiades positively irresistible.

But of course the story centers on Connor, and Crowe brings a sense of real strength and determination to the character without missing the man’s underlying grief, vulnerability and provincial goodness. His direction is skillful as well, even if he’s unable to make some of the screenplay’s less subtle decisions—the sprinkling of flashbacks to the boys on the battlefield, the intercuts of the dervishes, the “Arabian Nights” motif—work very well. Nor can he do much with the picture’s last fifteen minutes, which after all do crown what’s actually a very somber tale with a degree of light and happiness that comes across as a manipulative reach. Even there, however, Christopher Kennedy’s sharp production design, Tess Schofield’s costumes and Andrew Lesnie’s luscious cinematography remain highly impressive.

In all, despite some stumbles—or dry holes, if you prefer—“The Water Diviner” succeeds as a traditionally-framed drama of a father’s search for his family, and a film that should hold special resonance of Australians and New Zealanders on the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli in which so many of their countrymen died.