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Room (2015)

MV5BMjE4NzgzNzEwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTMzMDE0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_It’s hard to think of a more emotionally grueling and uplifting movie this year than Room. It drops you right into a scary world and, thanks to its carefully balanced tone, the film eschews sensationalism and gets at the beating heart of its survival story, namely the love and protection of a mother for her son. It is an emotionally powerful story that hits the big moments, the small moments, and everything in between. It left me analyzing it and rethinking it for hours, the repercussions still reverberating through me.

Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in a single soundproof room for seven years, the captive of an older man who is termed “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Complicating matters is that Ma has a five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) born into this captivity. It is the only world he’s known. To spare him the full horror of their circumstances, Ma has created an elaborate world for him that only exists in Room. After his fifth birthday, Ma tries speaking honestly to her son, lifting the veil of kind fabrications. Together they will scheme to escape their one-room world, but it comes with tremendous cost.

It would be easy to fall onto the more unseemly elements of this harrowing story and linger on just how bad things are and the horrifying lengths that Ma has to go through to survive. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) doesn’t have to wallow in depravity to get its point across. There’s a sensitivity that manages to temper some of the abuse in a manner that won’t make you run out of the room screaming. When Old Nick enters the room for his special time with Ma, we don’t need explicit detail to understand what is happening and what Ma is shielding Jack from by demanding he stay in the closet. The reality of their captivity is enough without underlining the worst of the worst for the lowest common denominator. The emotional weight of everything is clear without having to be bludgeoned. The implications are always just peaking around the corners from the safer version of reality Ma has proposed to protect her child. As the audience, we can see the cracks, we can see her front, and we can see the effort and the toll it’s taking on Ma. The stakes are clear as well, and so when Ma is instructing Jack and preparing him on their joint escape plan, you’ll start to feel waves of anxiety travel through your body. I was shaking with suspense that something could go wrong but also because Ma and Jack are such vulnerable characters that rely upon one another completely. I knew what was going to happen in broad strokes but I was still on the edge of my seat and that’s because the movie made me deeply care about the characters and their plight. The escape scene was on par with some of the better suspense sequences in the equally brilliant Sicario.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that Ma and Jack do get out of their one-room prison because the second half of the film deals with the ongoing consequences and challenges of adjustment. We’d like to think that we can be plugged into our old lives after spending time away, but that’s just not how things work, let alone for people who have experienced substantial psychological and physical trauma. Ma is struggling to readjust to her old life under the care of her mother, Nancy (Joan Allen). She looks through old high school pictures and you can tell she laments “what could have been” and even bears some resentment for her old friends who got to live the lives she should have had. Just because she’s free doesn’t mean she’s better. Her father Robert (William H. Macy), since divorced from Ma’s mother, can’t even look at Jack because of the pain it causes; Jack is a child of rape, but Ma demands he be acknowledged as her flesh-and-blood, and even that can be too much too soon for Robert. He’s more about seeking justice through the courts and as a result stays on the peripheral of the story for most of the movie. There is no exact time table for PTSD and Ma goes through highs and lows, none lower than when pressed with the question of why she held onto Jack after he was born. Would he not have had a better life in someone else’s care, assuming Old Nick would have abandoned him rather than kill his own blood? It’s a hard question and it stings.

For an obviously punishing story about the worst of humanity, I am not kidding when I say Room is an uplifting film. The darkness is easy to identify and Old Nick is a fearsome and all too real antagonist, one who could roam our very streets in anonymity. However, what stays with me several days after watching Room is not the suffering but the resiliency of spirit, the knack human beings have to persevere amid the worst. Ma’s recovery is rockier but more understandable for us to trace and relate with. Hers is an experience where she can finally begin to focus on something other than her child’s safety and deliverance, namely her own well-being. For Jack, there is no playbook. He’s spent his entire life inside a small room and never seen the outside world. His sense of understanding has been extremely limited and yet his sense of exploration is alive. Jack slowly and surely builds trusting relationships with Ma’s relatives, engaging in other activities, and acclimating to his new surroundings, reforming his sense of the world. It’s ultimately Jack who is able to make the greatest breakthrough to his mother, and it’s this moment of sacrifice and love that unleashed the last torrent of my tears. Previously I had cried two times over the horrors and Ma’s love as her strength, and it was this final moment, this sharing of his “Strong,” that let loose the happy tears.

It should go without saying but Larson gives an exceptionally powerful performance. After 2013’s stupendous Short Term 12, I knew this actress was destined for great things, especially the way she can zero in on a character and inhabit them fully. With Ma (she’s never given any other name) Larson is able to convey a multitude of emotions, many of which she has to hide from her son out of loving deference. He can’t know just how scared and exhausted she is, though these emotions do take over at time. Larson is tremendous as she exhumes maternal might as she does everything in her power to save the two of them. Early on, she’s the character we empathize with the most because she’s had her world taken from her and hoping to return. She’s so resourceful, from the way she’s able to answer her son’s questions about the world, to the way she’s able to practice and drill their escape plan to a child with no concept of “outside,” this is a powerful woman driven by the instinct to endure. When Larson’s façade breaks down with Jack, that’s when the movie started stabbing me like daggers. In the second half, her character has a long road to go to recovery, if that’s even an appropriate word, and Larson gives sensitive and empathetic consideration to every exhausted development. She is easily going to be the one to beat this year for the Best Actress Oscar.

brie-larson-room-01-600x350Paired with Larson is the remarkably natural child actor Jacob Tremblay, and his performance is worthy of awards consideration itself. At first his worldview is precocious because of how unique it is, which makes him more a figure of fascination than tragedy. He’s bright and active with the world around him, turning household items into useful toys and emotional attachments. The film uses parts of his narration to give better insight into just how he’s processing the world he knows versus the world as it exists. These bouts of narration never come across as cloying. As the movie continues, he learns more about how his preconceptions of the world are wrong, but he’s more intrigued than frightened. During the escape plan, when Jack gets to see the outside world for the first time, it’s a transcendent emotional moment. His guarded behavior around others is necessary as Jack builds positive associations with men who are not Old Nick. Tremblay is utterly magnificent; there is no hint of artifice to his performance, which is especially rewarding considering his is a role that could have been suffocated with eccentricities and tics. You feel like you’re watching a child grow before you through supportive nurturing.

Within the first twenty minutes of watching Room I already knew this was one of the best films of 2015. It just connects so vividly and succinctly, effortlessly powerful and yet skillfully avoiding sensationalism and exploitation while telling an entertaining survival story that still resonates with emotional truth. The performances from mother and son are outstanding and Larson and Tremblay form a heroic duo that take hold of your heart. It doesn’t mitigate the darkness or the cruel realities of its premise but Room also doesn’t dwell in the darkness, castigating its characters as hapless victims forever broken from their incalculable suffering. They are resourceful and resilient and while their trauma will not be forgotten it is not the one defining moment of their burgeoning lives. It may sound maudlin but it is the power of love that resonates the longest with Room. That love at first is about protecting the innocent, and then it transforms into healing and acceptance. I hope everybody gets a chance to see Room, a remarkable film with two remarkable performances and plenty to say about the humanizing benefit of love.

Nate’s Grade: A

Wild Hogs (2007)

It’s hard to imagine that this lowbrow, homophobic, uninspired, painfully nostalgic film is the top grossing comedy of the year so far. I don’t really want to further elaborate on what this says about the general public. The boys (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, a more random grouping of actors I challenge you to find) are all henpecked and unhappy with their dull, predictable, socially comfortable lives, so what’s a group of men facing midlife crises to do? Road trip. The idea of the freedom of the open road and the rebelliousness of touring the country on the back of a motorcycle seems quaint and naive at this point in life. What follows on their biker odyssey is a lot of lame slapstick and each actor trying to outdo the other in masculinity. A protracted third act standoff brings the film to a halt that it can never recuperate from. Wild Hogs isn’t a comedy disaster of sorts but it’s definitely got enough aimless misogyny and retroactive Boomer nostalgia to make you gag.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Cellular (2004)

Cellular, a new thriller, relies on the simple device of a cell phone for the crux of its plot. With cell phones becoming ever more present, and ever more an eyesore in our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before they had their own movie. They’ve slimmed down from their heavier 1980s days, and become more useful, allowing one to surf the Web, take candid pictures of people in gyms, and are able to ring in the tone of the new hot rap song of the week. The premise for Cellular may be pitch-perfect for our modern society, but will an audience answer its call?

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school biology teacher caught up in some scary events. She’s been kidnapped by a gruff man (Jason Statham), and locked in an attic. She’s informed that her son and husband will be found and kidnapped, unless she tells him what he wants to know. Unfortunately, she’s clueless as to what her kidnappers want. There is a wall phone in the attic, and one kidnapper smashes it with a sledgehammer and walks away satisfied. Jessica goes to work re-configuring the shattered phone pieces, tapping wires until she can reach out and touch somebody.

Ryan (Chris Evans) is a hunky beach bum who’s chastised by his ex (Jessica Biel, I know, I didn’t believe it too) for being too irresponsible. He’s driving around in his cool ride when he gets a panicky phone call from, you guessed it, Jessica. At first he thinks it’s a practical joke until he overhears her kidnappers threaten her. Reluctant to help, Jessica asks him to stop the kidnappers from reaching her family. Ryan runs around town all day scrambling to help Jessica’s family and solve the case. He also enlists the help of a retiring police officer (William H. Macy), who’d rather open a day spa than do desk work.

The premise for Cellular is near-genius and provides an abundance of smart, problematic possibilities. Ryan runs around and is always in danger of losing the signal. At one moment his cell phone is about to die from low battery charge. Another time the lines get crossed. Every step seems believable and the characters’ reactions seem credible. With Cellular, the audience thinks along with the characters step-by-step. When Ryan encounters stumbling blocks, the audience is with him in solving them, and this makes for a very engaging and thrilling movie.

The acting in thrillers is usually a minimal speed bump but the actors in Cellular do fine work. Basinger attempts to make up for her role in The Door in the Floor and plays harried and teary like a pro, but her best moments are when she uses her biology teacher know-how in precarious situations. She’s like a female MacGyver. Cellular is really a coming-out for Evans as a leading man. He’s had small roles before in The Perfect Score and Not Another Teen Movie, but this is his first leading-man role, and he handles the running, shouting, and panting with aplomb. Statham does his usually fine work of sneering and acting menacing. It’s also fun to watch William H. Macy, usually playing an every-man or a sadsack loser, play a bloodhound cop that morphs into an action hero.

The pacing in Cellular is breakneck. In the first 10 minutes, we witness Jessica’s kidnapping, and the momentum built up from that point is exhilarating. There is rarely a moment to catch your breath in Cellular. The action sequences are exciting but not redundant, and the tension readily mounts, especially when the audience is given more information than our heroes. There’s also some fun jabs at our country’s cell phone lifestyle.

Director David R. Ellis worked as a stunt coordinator for 20 years, before advancing into the director?s chair and helming 2003’s schlocky gore-fest Final Destination 2. Ellis knows how to keep his plot moving, and something is always happening in Cellular to draw our attention or to push us on edge. Cellular was written by Larry Cohen, who also penned Phone Booth and probably won’t rest until he’s the Robert Rodat of telecommunications (Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and seems destined to write a movie about every American war). Might I envision an erotic thriller with the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy just around the corner? Only time will tell.

As with any thriller, there are going to be lapses in logic that have the possibility of stopping the story dead in its tracks. Cellular‘s biggest logic loophole occurs right at the start, and if you can get behind it then you can enjoy the rest of the ride. Instead of smashing a telephone, why not yank it out of the wall and fully decommission it? Or, even better, why leave your kidnapped victim in a room, out of your sight, with a phone? Would it not have been easier to just tie her to a chair in plain sight? The mind boggles. The real answer we all know, of course, is because then we wouldn’t have a movie. There’s also a sequence late in the film where the bad guys discuss their evil plan on cell phones, which seems a tad careless considering anyone with a police scanner could listen in. As I said, gaps of logic are expected in this movie terrain and it’s your ability to rise above them that will determine if you enjoy the film.

Cellular is a thriller that dials the right numbers. It may have some gaps in logic, but it delivers when it comes to sharp suspense, smart action and a great premise. Fans of action thrillers should lick their lips with what Cellular has to offer. Just remember to keep your cell phones turned off during the movie, unless, of course, you’re surfing the Web, sneaking pictures of some girl, or jammin’ to the rap song of the week.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jurassic Park III (2001)

Jurassic Park 3 – or – How I Stopped Worrying About Plot and Started Loving Dinosaur Mayhem

As we last left Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) he is still making the rounds to financially support his ailing archeological digs in Montana. A couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) ask the good doctor to be their guide as they have chartered a plane to fly over the island of Isla Sorna (or Nublar, I forget which, they’re both really Hawaii anyway). Grant hesitates at first but when their checkbook comes out he begrudgingly accepts – proving again like the first two, that no matter what the danger, archeologists will do whatever for grants. The truth is that the couple is searching for their lost boy (Trevor Morgon) who was stranded on the island when he partook in an idiotic para-sailing sight seeing adventure by the island. Of course the plane gets destroyed and they must all fend for themselves.

Jurassic Park 3 makes no bones about what it really is – a dino thrill ride. There’s no opportunities to flesh out characters, there’s no time for set-up, it’s just straight to the island and constant running from peril from there. The pacing of the film and structure is like an amusement park; the people are on one ride that thrills, then they quickly move to another within minutes, and repeat for an afternoon of fun. To boil it down it’s dinos chase humans, stir, and bake for 90 minutes.

It seems that in every Jurassic movie we have some kind of new scientific theory being explored and eventually vilified. In the first it was dinosaurs behaved more like birds and perhaps evolved into them, the second had something to do with maternal behavior and parenting. And now in Jurassic Park 3 the new scientific dig is that raptors could communicate verbally to one another – in essence talk. There’s even a sequence late into the flick where they basically “talk” straight for something like a minute. I was hoping Dr. Doolittle would waltz in at any moment and start singing, but, despite my best hopes and wishes, it was not to be.

The effects and animatronics have gotten better than ever, and they were stellar to begin with. There are moments of great thrills and fun, but too often then not, it all feels routine. What should be an awesome sight of dinosaurs roaming is now blasé. What should be fearsome coming face to face with the familiar predators like T. Rex and the raptors now seems, well… too familiar. The only true moment of great awe and freshness is when the group is walking along a rickety walkway only to discover they’re inside a giant aviary complete with hungry pterodactyls.

Acting in a Jurassic Park film usually consists of a healthy scream and some fast legs. Everyone is okay by those standards, but Leoni’s character is just far too annoying. I would’ve enjoyed the flick more if she had been eaten. In another stroke of sure luck, all of the major Hollywood cast members survive yet all the extras or unknowns perish. Call it the Poseidon Adventure syndrome (Thank you Ebert for writing this first so that I might rip you off in the future).

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) inherited the dino franchise from master guru Spielberg and has done a fairly capable job with his efforts. The action is fast and there are a couple of particularly nice visual set-ups sprinkled through out the film. The marvel that was in Spielberg’s touch is the most missing however. The “script” (and I use this in a very loose sense) is actually co-credited to Alexander Payne, which is a rather interesting morsel. The most interesting one though has to be that the young Morgon has actually starred in another dinosaur picture before in his short career – Barney’s Great Adventure.

For action fans in this bleak summer release period Jurassic Park 3 will serve a fine dish at 90 minutes of fast dinosaur attacks and squeals. Hopefully though the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise will be stopped before the wonder it used to have turns passé. Because right now it’s teetering on the brink.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Panic (2000)

The story behind Panic goes something like this. The film was dropped by Artisan because they got test screening results back and apparently it wasn’t what they wanted. After this set-back it was going to be dumped to the wasteland of direct-to-cable like so many other troublesome pictures studios feel would not earn a buck if they were bleeding on the side of the road. After some fighting, particularly from critic Roger Ebert, a production house decided to distribute Panic in a very limited release. So what does this cinematic game of musical chairs mean? It means if you have a chance see this film.

Panic is a story about characters first and foremost. William H. Macy plays the son end of a father-son team of hitmen, with Donald Sutherland as the oppressive patriarch. Macy is a man who is never truly happy, almost like it is an impossibility for him at this point in his life. His wife (Tracey Ullman) is flaky and gives into her paranoia of her hubby having an affair with a younger chickadee. Macy meets an attractive and mysterious ingenue (Neve Campbell) while waiting for therapy. He begins on an obsession he can’t explain and fantasizes about her as the escape and ticket to happiness that is outside his reach.

The acting is as rich as the characters. Macy plays low-key but suits the subservient ghost that his character has become. Sutherland is haunting as the controlling father figure and the flashbacks between him and young Macy are disturbing as he plants his seed of control. Even at age six Macy’s character is referring to his father with “sir” tagged to the end of every sentence.

Neve’s character is the most in depth she’s ever been dealt, though her runner-up is a girl constantly chased by men in black robes with knives. Ullman is a nice presence and the audience really can sympathize with her. The child who plays the son of Macy and Ullman is one of the most adorable child actors I have ever seen. He lights up the screen every time he is present.

The story is brisk at a mere hour and a half. It is written and directed by a former writer of ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Homicide’ and the attention to characters shows. The film moves not through plot occurrences but through characters acting. When Macy discovers that the final hit he has to do is on his own therapist (John Ritter) his journey is one involving everyone around him in his life. The strains and pulls on this man are encompassing to watch.

Panic is a glimpse at a quiet movie told about the life of a man caught in his father’s grasp. Macy is a man conditioned to saying “he’s sorry” even if it is not deserved. His character is rich and Panic is a strongly acted gem if you can locate it.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Magnolia (1999)


Nate’s Grade: A

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

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