Category Archives: 2015

Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


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The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)

The Witch is very creepy. It has to be. There’s a lot of scary music, done to scary effect. Cuts to black and the like. Ominous forest. Cut to black. Very creepy.

Whether or not it’s scary is another matter. It’s somewhat disturbing. But it’s set in the seventeenth century and it’s serious. So it’s not like the characters have much happiness ahead of them anyway. There’s nothing idealized. Their religiosity, the production design, the costumes, director Eggers creates a fantastic verisimilitude.

It’s based on actual witch trial court records and contemporary accounts.

Of course, it presupposes witches. I mean, there are some very subtle hints at another explanation, but there’s a witch like five minutes in. There’s a demon rabbit. There’s all sorts of stuff, even before the film hits the third act when it becomes a series of responsibly budgeted supernatural set pieces. So it’s about witches. Well, it’s about this impoverished seventeenth century farming family who has witches interfere with them.

For the most part, the film’s pretty good. Eggers is a fine director. Craig Lathrop’s production design is great. Everything looks and smells miserable. Jarin Blaschke’s photography is good. Mark Korven’s music–scary or not–is effective. Not ambitious, but neither is anything else in the film. Eggers is always very concerned with his adherence to historical reality–or his recreation of it–the film’s tightly wound.

Occasionally, it seems like the film’s going to break free of its many constraints–there’s a lot of talk about taking lead Anya Taylor-Joy–teenage daughter in the family–off to town to become a servant for another family. The promise of town–just seeing something besides the family’s house and, occasionally, the dense forest–works to open the film up for a while. It seems bigger. But it’s not bigger. It’s still just as constrained. The implication is another responsibly budgeted device from Eggers. He does a fine job making this film.

Lots of good acting. Taylor-Joy’s quite good until the somewhere in the second act, around the time father Ralph Ineson starts accusing her of being a witch. At that point, everything Taylor-Joy does becomes suspect, because–since there’s nowhere to go–eventually everyone (except Ineson) becomes a witch suspect. The film doesn’t move through the suspects and clear them, it bunches them all up at once and then puts them aside–physically in some cases–while Ineson continues his breakdown.

Ineson’s breakdown is one of the bigger disappointments in the film. He’s very good at being the suffering father, who can’t get on the right side of God no matter what he does. Though the family ended up on the farm in the first place because Ineson couldn’t stop telling the other Puritans about the right side of God. It kind of matters, but really doesn’t. The Witch’s real history is nowhere near as compelling as the implied history.

The witch stuff–the possibility of a witch targeting the family–comes in real early. Early enough there’s not any actual character development, which is another of the film’s efficiencies. Setting a film in the seventeenth century and not having to worry about character development? Makes things easier.

Kate Dickie’s okay as the mother. She gets a bad role. At some point she just becomes hysterical, which is no doubt realistic but… so what. You’ve got demon rabbits. You can have the mother character not become hysterical to the point of caricature. Beautifully lighted, realistically costumed caricature.

But the best performances are from the twin toddlers–Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson–who cause such trouble around the farm. But also might be agents of the dark one. Eggers is subtlest with the toddlers. Tween Harvey Scrimshaw is becoming a man, which apparently meant perving on your sister (Taylor-Joy) in the seventeenth century, and Eggers uses it to ominous effect. But the toddlers are just obnoxious toddlers. Obnoxious toddlers just happens to be almost no different from demonic ones. It’s Eggers’s deftest move in the script, which sorely needs some deft moves.

The movie only runs ninety minutes and Eggers keeps it moving–until the third act, which still moves just off the eye-roll cliff–but he keeps it moving by keeping it lean and manipulative. He doesn’t have creative solutions to narrative problems because he doesn’t bother with narrative problems. It’s reductively told, which becomes obvious just over halfway through but the production values are so strong you don’t want to think Eggers is going to aim so low.

The film never wastes its actors because it never gives them anything more than exactly what it needs to succeed, so it doesn’t fail anyone. Sure, Ineson could’ve had better scenes but so could Taylor-Joy, so could Dickie. But they didn’t need to have better scenes; not for where Eggers was going.

It does move well. At least until the third act, when Eggers just gives up on the idea of protagonists, leads, or points of view and goes all in on the manipulative. But, by then, who cares. The Witch isn’t disappointing or frustrating or even tedious (until the last thirty minutes). It’s just… eh.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Eggers; director of photography, Jarin Blaschke; edited by Louise Ford; music by Mark Korven; production designer, Craig Lathrop; produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Rodrigo Teixeira, and Jay Van Hoy; released by A24.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas).


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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)

While Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t deliver much in the way of plot twists, it instead delivers a lot of easy smiles and a handful of good laughs. The easy smiles aren’t just for the action sequences, which often focus on characters’ reactions to them–sometimes relief, sometimes awe at Tom Cruise’s derring-do–but also for the chemistry. There’s not much in the way of character development in Rogue Nation (what does Ving Rhames do in his six months of retirement?), but the actors have a great time onscreen churning out the (relatively light) exposition and going through the espionage motions.

Rogue Nation opens with its biggest set piece–Cruise jumping on a cargo plane, which then takes off. Director (and writer) McQuarrie plays it for a nice combination of laughs and spectacle. Cruise’s sidekicks are all commenting on it, albeit sometimes from thousands of miles away. For the film’s first hour, McQuarrie relies on Simon Pegg for humor. Pegg doesn’t disappoint. After the first scene, it takes a while for Rhames to reappear, while Jeremy Renner (as the team’s permissive straight man) is a constant. First as the chiding presence, then as Cruise and company’s defender once CIA suit Alec Baldwin dismantles the IMF, making Cruise a fugitive.

Cruise is too busy hunting down an unknown villain–Sean Harris–who kidnapped him. Woman of mystery and ostensible Harris lackey Rebecca Ferguson helps free Cruise, just before he has to go on the run from Baldwin. Ferguson and Cruise’s scene, complete with complementary butt-kicking of Harris’s thugs, oozes with chemistry. It takes a while for Ferguson to return to the action; McQuarrie smartly doesn’t focus too much on Cruise–rather Pegg’s angle–because Cruise is… well… a little on snooze when Ferguson’s not present.

Eventually Cruise gets the band back together and travels from Vienna to Morocco to London while pursuing Harris and Ferguson. Baldwin’s after them (sort of) and Ferguson’s disavowed British agent subplot figures in as well. There’s a big car chase in Morocco, a shootout in the Vienna opera house, an underwater heist, and some attempts at plot twists in the U.K. McQuarrie’s set pieces for the third act are all a lot smaller than the ones before. He’s trying to wrap up the film with narrative not action, which is fine, but far from exciting. Particularly because, like I mentioned before… his plot twists aren’t particularly surprising. If they aren’t predictable, they’re entirely inconsequential. Rogue Nation constantly amuses, but never surprises.

It also leaves a couple big questions unanswered, just because they don’t matter once the plot points they’re supporting are resolved. McQuarrie can’t be bothered with anything even hinting at character development. Sometimes he just avoids it by cutting away from a scene and changing the narrative distance–Cruise will take over after a Ferguson solo scene, so her resolution in her own scene becomes a plot point in his new one. Or McQuarrie just forgets about something. It’s more frustrating when he forgets about it, because then it’s clear it never mattered in the first place.

Technically, the film’s excellent. Fine editing from Eddie Hamilton, good photography from Robert Elswit (except in the finale, where it just seems a little too artificial), decent music from Joe Kraemer. A lot of Rogue Nation‘s technical competences are just competences; they’re perfunctory. The film’s strengths are in the performances and the actors’ chemistries. Not just Ferguson and Cruise, but Cruise and Pegg, Cruise and Rhames, Cruise and Renner. Even Rhames and Renner, who do this odd couple schtick for about three minutes spread over a half hour or so. There’s not a lot to their interplay, but it’s damned amusing when they’re onscreen together.

And Harris is good as the odious villain. Rogue Nation sets him up as this terrorist mastermind, but doesn’t show any of the terror (good thing Cruise is really affecting when he’s passionate enough to yell). But when Harris is scheming or terrorizing Ferguson? He’s good. Understated. Maybe the only understated thing in the entire film.

Of the supporting good guys, Pegg’s best. He’s got the most to do. He’s even got the start of a character arc. Renner and Rhames are both fine. No heavy lifting, just easy smiles.

Cruise and Ferguson get the most screen time, with Ferguson getting more of the heavy lifting acting. Cruise has a little, but nothing compared to her. Just more than everyone else. Except–maybe–Pegg. And Cruise gets to do some straight humor scenes, which is nice. Unfortunately, McQuarrie hurries through them.

Baldwin’s in a glorified cameo. It ought to be stunt casting, but it’s hard to identify why it’s much of a stunt.

Rogue Nation is constantly entertaining and never challenging, never ambitious. McQuarrie’s direction is even, he toggles more than adequately between the various elements–humor, action, thriller, exposition–he just doesn’t shine at any of them. Except maybe the humor, which he eschews in the second half for the most part. He’s able to get away with some sincerity, however, thanks to Cruise and company. The actors are able to sell it.

The film’s a fine diversion. But it’s clear from the end of the first act it’s never going to particularly excel overall.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Joe Kraemer; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Dana Goldberg, David Ellison, and Don Granger; released by Paramount Pictures

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Sean Harris (Lane), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Jens Hultén (Vinter), Simon McBurney (Atlee), and Alec Baldwin (Hunley).


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Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)

Every once and a while, Magic Mike XXL throws in some vague nod towards having character development. It doesn’t. And the movie knows it doesn’t need any, but it still pretends it does. All of the characters have the same arc, with the exception of “lead” Channing Tatum. He’s only the lead because he’s Magic Mike and because he’s got the biggest romance subplot; he keeps running into Amber Heard and they awkwardly flirt. Awkwardly but with chemistry. There’s no narrative purpose to them flirting and the script doesn’t pretend there’s enough material, but XXL’s scenes run… well, extra long and so instead of witty banter, there’s charismatic silences and pauses. It’s cute. Magic Mike XXL, when it’s not being raunchy (in an adorable way), is adorable in not raunchy ways.

Anyway. Tatum. He’s the wise man of a group of male entertainers–Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer, and Adam Rodriguez. He’s the only one who’s gotten out of the male entertaining (stripper) life, while the rest of them are all immediately going to be getting out of it. They’ve got one more big stripping convention to attend and then they’re done. It’s never exactly clear why it’s their last weekend (though Bomer at least seems like he’s sticking with it). Manganiello is going into landscape architecture, but wants to come up with trendy products. Nash wants to be a painter. Rodriguez is going to run the frozen yogurt half of a frozen yogurt slash mobile block party van (Gabriel Iglesias is his partner and the group’s emcee). Bomer wants to be an actor. All of them are terrified of their futures, but Tatum is there to assure them they need to believe in themselves.

All that backstory is just to give them banter while the movie road trips. While Magic Mike XXL is, technically, a road movie, it’s more about where they stop. Where they stop and strip. Whether it’s a convenience store–when the guys are all tripping on ecstasy and Tatum is trying to convince them to strip to what they love, not what’s commercially viable–or Andie MacDowell’s living room, once the movie gets going, the road tripping is just to get them to one dancing engagement or another. Except when it’s Jada Pinkett Smith’s party house; there it’s usually other guys stripping (for a while) while Tatum and Pinkett Smith flirt.

There are narrative reasons for most of these things. Usually to enable the next move for the guys. They have some trouble on the road trip and need help. Along the way, they resolve their leftover issues with one another from the last movie and fret about their non-male entertaining futures.

It’s cute. And fun. And often really funny.

Tatum’s an appealing lead. He doesn’t have to do much, except dance. He can definitely dance. Only Nash and Rodriguez lack in the dancing department. Otherwise all the dancing is good; the choreography, depending on the guy dancing, can be excellent. But it’s not like Tatum’s got a character arc. He’s entirely altruistic and entirely divested. He’s not even really pursuing Heard, just trying to convince her to enjoy guys stripping in her proximity. The movie never wants to be taken too seriously; it often demands not to be, in fact.

Makes it even more likable.

Manganiello’s good. Heard’s fine. Bomer’s annoying. Nash is all right. Rodriguez makes little impression. Pinkett Smith goes–gloriously–all in, like she’s auditioning her character for a spin-off. MacDowell and Elizabeth Banks–both in extended and obvious cameos–are all right. XXL could do better with the cameos. It doesn’t have enough fun with them. Donald Glover seems rather lost, even if his singing contributions are solid.

Jacobs’s direction is okay. He’s got a Panavision frame but mostly just uses the center of the screen to showcase the dancing. He mixes it up a bit with the dialogue, which is a lot better. Executive producer, cinematographer, and editor Steven Soderbergh does entirely competent work in all his roles… but none of it’s particularly exciting. XXL doesn’t want to get ahead of itself and profess ambition. Other than being fun.

And it works out. Magic Mike XXL’s usually fun.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Jacobs; written by Reid Carolin; director of photography, Steven Soderbergh; edited by Soderbergh; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Carolin, Jacobs, Channing Tatum, and Nick Wechsler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Channing Tatum (Mike), Joe Manganiello (Big Dick Richie), Matt Bomer (Ken), Kevin Nash (Tarzan), Adam Rodriguez (Tito), Amber Heard (Zoe), Jada Pinkett Smith (Rome), Gabriel Iglesias (Tobias), Donald Glover (Andre), Elizabeth Banks (Paris), and Andie MacDowell (Nancy Davidson).


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