REVIEW: Room

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

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REVIEW: Cake

21 01 2015

CakeJennifer Aniston stars in “Cake” as Claire Bennett, a woman struggling with chronic pain following a tragic automotive accident.  The poster and production stills almost completely hide it, but she sports a deep and instantly noticeable scar on her face stemming from the traumatic event.

And, per usual in an indie drama, the emotional scars run far deeper.  She attends group therapy as well as physical rehabilitation only to undo their progress in a toxic cocktail of booze and painkillers.  Claire further masks her agony through biting, sardonic wisecracks, deflecting anyone from exposing her pressing need for help.

It would be wrong to assign the character sole responsibility for her continuing struggles; the maelstrom of physical and emotional pain presents a tough obstacle for even the strongest individual to overcome.  Claire’s self-destructive tendencies do not disqualify her from receiving sympathy, either, yet the movie’s myopic focus on her pity party feels … well, pitiful.

Not to discredit or downplay her anguish, but Claire is a wealthy, white Angeleno living comfortably in unexplained luxury.  Her inability to function in society, shockingly, never seems to raise doubts about the continuance of her lifestyle.  She never seems to worry about having the funds to procure pain pills in Tijuana, and she never entertains the possibility of a world without the invaluable assistance of her inexplicably loyal Hispanic maid and driver Silvana (Oscar nominee Adrianna Barraza).

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REVIEW: Ernest & Celestine

16 06 2014

Ernest and CelestineIn the effort to engage in the larger cultural conversation about “important” films, I realize that it must seem like I can only appreciate a movie if it tackles topics of great thematic heft or breaks some sort of cinematic mold.  But truth be told, I love a movies like “Ernest & Celestine” just as much because it possesses a remarkable sort of magic.  It has the power to return me to a childlike sense of spectatorship, allowing me a pleasant regression to a simpler state of mind.

The film’s story is nothing particularly extraordinary, but it charms from the get-go.  The indomitably curious mouse Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) wants to know what could really be so bad about the big, scary bears of whom all mice are warned to fear.  This very nearly ends her life when she goes above ground and winds up in the clutches of the hapless bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).  Celestine doesn’t just convince him not to eat her; she makes him a friend.

Sadly, no one else is willing to accept their unconventional relationship.  It’s unnatural and scary to both species, unwilling to budge from their present ideologies.  And yet, the bear and the mouse persevere, teaching very important lessons about acceptance and affection.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  That’s a lesson “Ernest & Celestine” radiates with clarity as well as warmth, and I hope children from 3 to 93 everywhere take it to heart.  A- / 3halfstars





REVIEW: The Lincoln Lawyer

28 08 2013

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for a legal thriller.  Though I don’t watch any of the “Law and Order” series, I’m pretty much game to get involved in any movie that takes place in America’s criminal justice system.  “The Lincoln Lawyer” is not a particularly notable entry into the genre, but it’s compelling and entertaining enough to make for a good watch.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular litigator Mickey Haller, a slightly crooked lawyer in the mold of George Clooney’s character in “Michael Clayton.”  He’s caught in entangling web of alliances and often finds himself in tough positions as a result.  His bind in “The Lincoln Lawyer” results after taking on a spoiled brat of a client, Ryan Phillipe’s Louis Roulet.  He’s been accused of beating a prostitute and ropes Haller into a devious master plan that will keep him out of jail.  Unwilling to be made a pawn in anyone’s game, Haller and his investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy), start pulling their own strings.

The story, taken from the novel by Michael Connelly, is engaging and engrossing, just as any good page-turner feels as you grip it.  But as is often the case with such airport magazine stand mass-market paperback books, “The Lincoln Lawyer” keeps the events rolling by sacrificing character development.  While McConaughey’s performance (one of the earliest in his much-heralded comeback) is decent enough to propel the movie, it could have gone from merely good to GREAT by adding a few more layers of complexity to Haller.  But all in all, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is fitting for what it is: a breezy legal drama.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Sessions

20 11 2012

I went into “The Sessions” assuming it was tailor-made for Oscars, but I walked out assuming it was tailor-made to annoy me.  It’s as if writer/director Ben Lewin found the perfect characters for awards season glory – disabled poet/virgin, sex surrogate with a heart of gold, and a “hip” priest – and failed to explore them any further beyond an archetype.

I’m not quite sure who deserves the blame for the film’s total inability to connect, Lewin’s overly simplistic scripting and characterization or the actors for failing to fill in the gaps.  All things considered, these characters should be a slam dunk for Oscar nominees John Hawkes and William H. Macy and especially for Oscar winner Helen Hunt.  They play such sympathetic characters: Hawkes’ Mark O’Brien is a tender poet who merely wants to experience the ecstasy of sex that our culture trumpets so loudly, and Hunt’s Cheryl is a teacher of sexual form who finds herself looking to her clients to make her feel the appreciation she lacks at home.

“The Sessions” could have explored how the two found fulfillment in what they lacked, Mark from sex and Cheryl from intimacy.  However, Lewin keeps the movie operating on a mere surface level, aiming for “American Pie” style gags about sexual naïveté.  Mark O’Brien is really not all that different from Jason Biggs’ Jim Levenstein if you compared the two.  And I guess continuing the analogy, William H. Macy’s Catholic priest serves a very similar function as Jim’s dad, played by Eugene Levy, in terms of providing some inappropriate advice given their symbolic positions.

Especially given the physical commitment on display from the two leads, what with Hawkes only able to contort his head and Hunt taking off all the clothes and exposing the entirety of her body, the sitcom-esque nature of their characters are brought to light, exposed, and shamed.  If the actors are going to such drastic lengths to animate Mark and Cheryl, why could I not care the slightest bit for either of them?  Going for broke on “The Sessions,” which was already broke to begin with, didn’t pay off for the audience.  C+





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 (July 30, 2010)

30 07 2010

I had always been interested in seeing “Boogie Nights.”  And for those of you who happen to know the film’s subject matter, no, it’s not because I wanted to see certain things.  Released in 1997, the movie features plenty of today’s stars long before they had the luster and prestige their names bear now.  Five members of the ensemble have since been nominated for Oscars, and an actor who wasn’t even given top billing has even won an Oscar.

In an effort to see some of Julianne Moore’s finest roles, I decided it was time to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award-nominated second feature.  The movie was her breakout, earning her notices from everyone, including the first of her four Oscar nominations.  But it’s not just to feature her that “Boogie Nights” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week;” the entire ensemble shines in a true work of artistry by Anderson.

I can’t dance around the topic any longer – this is a movie about the adult entertainment industry, in Los Angeles during the ’70s and ’80s.  Director Jack Horner is looking for an actor to build an empire around, someone who can do more than just look good.  He finds just that in Eddie Adams, a young nightclub employee with talents that Horner seeks.  Changing his name to Dirk Diggler, Horner’s discovery becomes the star he always dreamed of.

But the bigger Diggler’s star becomes, the closer he moves towards becoming a supernova.  His fame has made him violently angry and cocky.  He has also spiraled into severe drug abuse and addiction.  Soon enough, he finds that his greatest asset for his job doesn’t function the way he wants.  Diggler slowly drops towards rock bottom, and thanks to a strong performance by Mark Wahlberg, it’s a gripping journey to watch.  See, the stories of fame in the adult film industry are no different than any other entertainment industry.

As I said earlier, there is quite the ensemble at work here, including John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy as members of Diggler’s posse.  It’s quite fun to see them in their younger years, just getting started in Hollywood.  He was leagues away from stardom at the time, but a definite standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman as a crew member infatuated with Diggler.  He plays an unsettling character, and it’s nailed with the precision we now regularly associate with Hoffman.

The women are great, too.  Heather Graham, who most people don’t take seriously, is seriously brilliant as Rollergirl, an actress who does all her movies wearing rollerskates.  Anderson wrote the character with great depth, exploring her insecurities and weaknesses.  Graham goes there with him, truly shocking us not only by how good she is but how far she is willing to take her character.  And then there’s Julianne Moore, who entered mainstream consciousness for her portrayal of Amber Waves.  She acts as a mother figure to Diggler, yet at the same time, she finds herself very attracted to him.  Moore can play both objectives well, but she’s at her best when they clash.

In only his second movie, Paul Thomas Anderson handles “Boogie Nights” with the precision of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, sharing the former’s knack for great camerawork and the latter’s ability to select great music.  Now that I’ve seen this, I have to wonder why I like his later movies so much less.