17 11 2015

It’s easy to think the most impressive cinematic achievements are the ones that transport us to new worlds of an artist’s creation. (Case in point: “Star Wars.”) But there is something to be said for those films that can take the familiar and make it feel new and radically different. I speak not of freshly presenting plot points but rather an entire way of seeing, and Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” achieves such a feat.

The film assumes the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as he gains self-awareness of his place in the world. Problem is, that world is extremely socially constructed by his mother, Brie Larson’s “Ma.” She, assumed disappeared and dead, is held captive inside a shed by a vile man who eventually impregnates her. Rather than explain their dire situation to Jack, Ma decides to teach him that their room is the entirety of the world.

The tiny space, instead of feeling claustrophobic, seems limitless when filtered through a childlike curiosity and innocence. As he begins to make sense of the world around him, it inspires us to think deeply about the small assumptions make about our surroundings on a daily basis.

Emma Donoghue adapted “Room” from her own novel of the same name, and it is told by Jack in the first person. For over 300 pages, the depth and breadth of his observational eye forges quite the bond between reader and character over time. In a way, it almost does not feel fair to expect a movie to match that scope in just two short hours. Abrahamson and Donoghue do a wonderful job translating the story to the screen, though something may feel lost – or at least somewhat less substantial – to those who know the book.

Even so, everyone should expect to be bowled over by stunning performances from Tremblay and Larson. The way each struggles to assert the primacy of their own needs while caring for the other proves compelling and often gut-wrenching. This is particularly true for Larson’s Ma, who has no choice but to wrestle with the darkest of her feelings and impulse in captivity. After five years of such intensive, performative positivity, living an untruth takes its toll. “Room” celebrates when her selflessness wins out but never judges her for needing some personal space – a tricky balance beautifully managed by all involved. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 23, 2012)

23 03 2012

Before Gary Ross was making us hunger for “The Hunger Games,” he was making thoughtful dramas with insights into society and the individual (which makes him an excellent fit to be at the helm of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy). He wrote Tom Hanks’ “Big” and directed a real crowd-pleasing hit with “Pleasantville,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I was expecting it to be a gentle satire of 1950s culture and television, but it wound up surprising me and insightfully looking deeper at the narrow-minded times both then and now.

The high-concept dramedy follows the adventures of 1990s teenage siblings David and Jennifer, played respectively by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon pre-superstardom, after being magically transported through the television into the world of the series Pleasantville. It’s your typical ’50s utopian small town where the sun always shines, the kids all innocently gather at the diner, mom is happy in the kitchen, and dad is bringing home the bacon. The world is as simple as the color scheme it’s shot in: black and white.

But as the Beatniks and Betty Friedan would later show us, the American Dream of the 1950s was not without a dark underside. People were still unhappy; they just didn’t have the channels to express it, so they repressed it. David slowly begins to introduce color into Pleasantville, showing people that they can see and feel as they were meant to feel.

Change is never easy, though, and it is never met without opposition. The town begins to divide on what they perceive as the shifting moral values being advocated by David and his colorful crew. Ross assembles a fine ensemble cast, including Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and J.T. Walsh to vivify the conflict. While we relish the performances and the story during the movie, we are left to linger with the challenging thematic probing that asks us to apply the color litmus test to our own world.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 26, 2010)

26 02 2010

I set a lofty goal to see every Academy Award-nominated performance of the ’00s by the final ceremony of the decade. I’m not going to reach this goal, but along the way, I have seen some great movies and great acting. This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – refresher on the acronym), “The Contender,” is one of those movies.

“The Contender” received two acting nominations in 2000.  The first was for Joan Allen, who plays Senator Laine Hanson, a nominee for the vacant vice-presidential position.  She is a Republican-turned-Democrat and a safe pick for a second-term president looking for his “swan song.”

However, she has strong opponents in her former party, led by the aggressive Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman).  He and a select group begin to execute an elaborate smear campaign, designed to block her confirmation.  After a comprehensive investigation, they dig up dirty details from her past, designed merely to distract from the real issue and engrain the image of a harlot in the American minds.  One can’t help but see the movie a little differently after Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy in the 2008 election and her subsequent defamation by the media.

The other nominated performance came from Jeff Bridges as the president looking to polish his profile for the history books.  It’s brimming with typical Bridges precision and poise, but it’s a fairly reserved role up until the rousing climax (more on that in a second).

“The Contender” stood out among similar political dramas for me because of its emphasis on ethics.  Christian Slater’s character, a young and honest politician who joins with Runyon’s crew to take down Hansen, represents the morals that so many of the old Washington cronies seem to have lost.  The movie ends with a killer monologue by Jeff Bridges’ president, and it is an inspiring piece of patriotism that makes us proud in the democratic process that we have.  Maybe the president should start hiring screenwriters to write his speeches…