Monthly Archives: October 2015

Room — 8/10

ROOM (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

One of the best scenes in FACE/OFF is when Archer (Nicolas Cage, at that point) is telling his wife (Joan Allen) about their first date, that ended with a trip to a drunk all-night dentist. When Cage finally gets to the line about how at the end of the night, even though her tooth must have hurt like hell, “you kissed me anyway,” Woo cuts to Allen as she wells up with tears. That reaction shot (along with any number of great ones in other films like THE ICE STORM) helps the director sell the scene, making Allen one of the unsung MVPs of that movie.

If only Lenny Abrahamson had Woo’s knowledge of when to give Allen her close-up. Late in ROOM, there’s a scene with tremendous emotional power, and Allen — like all great actors — reacts to it with all the force required, no more and no less. But after her knees slightly buckle (which Abrahamson properly shows in a wide shot), we desperately want to see her face. But we never do. I can’t imagine why — I doubt it’s lack of coverage and I doubt it’s lack of quality acting; so it must have been a conscious choice. Anyway, it’s choices like that which keep ROOM from ascending to levels of greatness.

That said, this is a pretty damn good film even when Abrahamson can’t figure out where to put the camera. No matter where we’re looking, Brie Larson is a powderkeg of intensity — her character (the second lead female this year named “Joy” in a film that’s resolutely about sadness) shines in all dimensions: the love for her son, the desperation involved in saving and protecting him, and the self-doubt she carries with it. Jacob Tremblay is also crazily good for playing a 5 year-old who’s never been outside a garden shed his entire life. Tough role, and who knows how but he nails it.

And even though every bit of this film could have been treated with cynicism or remove (think Netflix’s sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue (whose script is based on her own book) stick to a wholly earnest tone. Not that it doesn’t have laughs, but it’s always emotional first and borderline corny. Walking this line is tougher than it looks, and ROOM does it from the first shot to the last. Even more impressive is how, with such a wrenching portrayal of true maternal will, the film still manages to offer a message beyond its characters and consistently offer up a point of view about the entire world and the human condition within it. Don’t take for granted how fantastic the world can be: nature, family, life. But don’t forget for one second that despite all that beauty, people are still evil and there’s no escaping the grim futility of our fleeting existence. One is reminded of Morgan Freeman’s closing narration in SEVEN: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” This is basically the flip side of that viewpoint. In ROOM’s Akron, Ohio, the world is a fine place, but maybe not worth fighting for.

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The Assassin – 6/10

THE ASSASSIN (2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

A strange mix of both stripped-down minimalism and overly theatrical artifice makes this peculiar entry in Hou’s filmography a bewildering experience. Lacking the immediate, sensual emotion of MILLENNIUM MAMBO but more fluid and dazzling than something like CAFÉ LUMIÈRE, it’s a complex watch that nevertheless leaves you a little cold. In terms of performance, production design, and action choreoraphy, something feels false — the usually-present Shu Qi is a mask of stillness and focus, and at times the cast members look like stage actors playing dress-up and performing wuxia theater. But plenty of scenes — especially the interiors — have that dreamy, flowing-drape layering of movies like FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, and it’s cut with the confident assertiveness of a seasoned vet. I’m being a little vague here, for a couple reasons: first, I saw this over a week ago and can’t remember some details; and second, the plot is extremely tough to comprehend on one viewing. This is more about ideas and history than it is about storytelling, and while that may work for some films, this one fights against that opacity. Also, what we can figure out about Shu’s character, which is that she allows her sentimentality to cloud her assassin duties, doesn’t change from beginning to end — so she’s a little static. But this is still an interesting movie to wrestle with and I’d recommend it to Hou fans. Maybe not too many others, though.

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The Martian — 7/10

THE MARTIAN (2015, Ridley Scott)

GRAVITY meets CAST AWAY in a rousing crowd-pleaser that shows off both Matt Damon’s considerable charm and unfussy gift for drama as well as Scott’s storytelling skill that’s at once propulsive yet never rarely over-stylized. It’s perfect middlebrow entertainment, never at risk of alienating the masses but remaining smart and fleet enough to congratulate its discerning audience as well. If you’d told me this was directed by Ron Howard, I’d believe you.

It’s also a shockingly optimistic script from Drew Goddard, he of the apocalyptically bleak CABIN IN THE WOODS, every bit a caustic broiling of human nature. This time around (adapting a novel, however), Goddard has sculpted a towering testament not only to mankind’s ingenuity, spirit, and adoration of science, but also its willingness to work together, to unify, and monolithically root for one person’s survival. There’s something endearing about Scott and Goddard’s rosy view of humanity in the face of improbable odds, even the sight of thousands gathering at Times Square to watch a broadcast of a NASA mission as if it were V-E Day. But it’s also a certain kind of fantasy. Whether or not you’re down with it, it’s hard not to get swept up in Damon’s resolutely maverick attitude, his sense of humor, his plight and peril, and his sense of honor and camaraderie. Matt Damon’s “Mars” is a studio backlot with rear projection and CG visuals, but the humans working together on Earth to save him might as well be from Venus.

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