ROOM (2015)

October 24, 2015

room Greetings again from the darkness. Tragically, stories of women being held captive have become all too common in this sometimes frightening world in which we live. Emma Donoghue had the high profile, real life situations of Jaycee Dugard, Elisabeth Fritzl and Amanda Berry (Ariel Castro) to draw from for her terrific novel upon which this film is based. While not easy for anyone (especially parents) to watch, it’s a well made movie with outstanding performances … including a career-changer from Brie Larson.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, a critical favorite from last year) takes us inside the world – or more accurately – the walls where Ma (Brie Larson) and her just turning 5 year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live. Seven years ago, Larson’s character was abducted while walking home from school, and since then she has given birth to Jack, and the two have been held captive in a small shed with only a skylight connecting to the outer spaces of life. The captor … known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) … periodically brings them supplies, while also regularly visiting to satisfy his more base needs with Ma.

For the first half of the film, we as viewers are held prisoners right along with Ma and Jack. We see what a patient and wonderful mother she is as she strives to provide some semblance of hope for her son, though in a nearly hopeless situation. When Jack turns 5, Ma begins to explain the outside world to him, as she knows they must try to escape in order for her son to have any semblance of a normal life. During this time, we are in awe of this 10 x 10 environment and how it is every bit the nightmare we have imagined while reading the articles and seeing the reports on real life ordeals.

The second half of the film is equally fascinating, as we watch young Jack and his sense of wonder and caution at discovering the real world. We also see the psychological trauma that Ma experiences after staying strong for so long. Assimilating into society brings different challenges for both Ma and Jack, plus those of her mother (Joan Allen), her father (William H Macy) and her mom’s new beau (Tom McCamus). The film doesn’t shy away from their reactions, though some are easier to stomach than others.

Providing any more details would soften the impact of the film, and this is one that is meant to be felt – even if it’s a true kick in the gut. The film is well cast and well acted, and young Jacob Tremblay captures our hearts quickly and joins the short list of child actors who go far beyond “cute” and into profound. Brie Larson exploded onto the acting scene in Short Term 12, one of my favorite movies of 2013; but it’s here where she steps into the elite level of actresses. She brings a tenacity and emotional strength that leaves us never doubting whether she has “her strong”.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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CAKE (2014)

January 30, 2015

cake Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.

Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.

Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).

Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girl as her best.

The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE SESSIONS (2012)

November 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1997, director Jessica Yu won an Academy Award for her documentary short entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a poet and journalist who attended Cal Berkeley. His story reaches the level of remarkable once you understand that he suffered the harsh effects of polio, was almost entirely paralyzed, and was confined to an iron lung for all but 3-4 hours per day. Director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor) has taken a specific part of O’Brien’s story and turned it into a very entertaining and intimate film that explores the challenges faced by the disabled in leading a full and sexual life.

In 1990, O’Brien had an article published: “On Seeking a Sex Surrogate“. It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate … also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching, and quite funny, story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O’Brien “cleared” his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy).  All three of these actors deliver, and Hawkes is especially fascinating as his voice and eyes must convey all emotions.

This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O’Brien’s caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl’s husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O’Brien had a loving relationship until his death in 1999.

There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer … more in line with this year’s highly recommended The Intouchables. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It’s a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one’s constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days … at age 68.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are inspired by the true stories of remarkable people OR you just want to see Helen Hunt get nekkid.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are uncomfortable watching an adult come to terms with sexuality in spite of the obstacles stemming from his disability.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy2y7UIpgP4


THE LINCOLN LAWYER

March 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Major dilemma: sucker for courtroom dramas vs. no fan of Matthew McConaughey. I decided to give it a shot, and given my low expectations, found the movie to be quite entertaining – despite its numerous flaws. If you are a fan of the endless stream of John Grisham book-turned-movie, then I expect you will find this one to your taste.

Based on the Michael Connelly series of novels built around Mick Haller, this one has the look and feel of part one (and also of a TV series). Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so named because of his propensity to handle much of his work from the backseat of a classic Lincoln Town Car. The choice of McConaughey as Haller seemed all together wrong given his annual appearance in some lame ass Rom-Com, where he spends most of each movie shirtless and smirking. Luckily for us, Mr. McConaughey manages to re-capture some of the acting skills he flashed in A Time to Kill, so many years ago.

 In addition to his close to the vest portrayal of Haller, the movie works because of an incredibly deep cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and frequent courtroom adversary (she is an ADA), Ryan Phillippe as the accused rich boy, William H Macy as the long-time and streetwise private investigator, Josh Lucas as the ADA in the main case, Bryan Cranston as the detective in charge, plus Michael Pena, Bob Gunton (warden from Shawshank Redemption), John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher, Laurence Mason (Earl the driver), Shea Willingham (Boardwalk Empire), Trace Adkins (the country star as the leader of a biker gang) and Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers). Seriously, this cast allows every scene to have something worth watching.

 The two things that prevent the movie from being top notch are the beyond-belief exaggerated moments (including about 3 too many endings) and the absolutely distracting camera work courtesy of director Brad Furman. In the hands of a more experienced director, many of the flaws could have been corrected.

This is not presented as an ultra serious courtroom drama in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Judgment at Nuremberg. Rather it is a character driven story with a multitude of twists … some of which work and some of which don’t. I found it to be  enjoyable despite the script issues and the hey-look-at-me direction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too are a sucker for courtroom dramas OR you doubt my claim that McConaughey can avoid going shirtless for 2 hours.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you demand perfection in your crime thriller scripts OR you believe the only reason to see a McConaughey movie is because he does go shirtless