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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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The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


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De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

De Palma is director Brian De Palma talking about his films. He’s talking to the directors, Baumbach and Paltrow, but without ever addressing them by name. De Palma’s filmmakers have zero presence in the film, until the epilogue. Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath’s editing is magnificent, especially how they’re usually able to keep De Palma from referencing being interviewed. Because when he’s just talking, De Palma’s a natural storyteller. When he’s being interviewed, he wants to converse. He unintentionally implies De Palma has some specific layers, only it doesn’t. Because De Palma didn’t make the film.

De Palma sits in a chair and talks. He’s usually shot from a low angle and his hands gesticulate with almost three-dimensional effect. Then De Palma cuts to film clips. The film clips are fantastic. They emphasize De Palma’s most startlingly composition as a director, then also looking at his Steadicam shots.

When the film starts and De Palma is covering his student days, he’ll talk trash about people he worked with. He talks trash about Orson Welles not wanting to learn his lines, which was also a problem with Robert De Niro on The Untouchables. Only De Palma trashes Welles while making De Niro’s identical action seem cute. But there are more stories–Cliff Robertson’s no fun, John Cassavetes hates special effects–and then they stop. No more trash talk. Except the “cute” De Niro story.

There’s more focus on the technical aspects of the films and less about how De Palma got them made. It’s cool stuff.

When De Palma talks about his films, he acknowledges his divisiveness but doesn’t elaborate. He’s telling the same stories he’s always told. He’s not searching for some great introspective eureka, he’s doing an interview. He’s proud of some movies, he’s not proud of some others. Bad movies are never his fault. Pauline Kael likes him, he can’t be misogynistic. He likes some excellent classic movies. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like his movies.

De Palma’s a neat introduction to Brian De Palma movies. It’s well-produced but otherwise simply a lengthy pitch reel for De Palma.

It’s also a little dishonest. Paltrow and Baumbach shot the interview in 2010. There are clips from a 2012 film, integrated like De Palma’s talking about it. And it changes how the epilogue plays.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, De Palma is basically a “professional” YouTube video, which is fine. At least it’s not pretentious. And De Palma’s a fun interviewee.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; edited by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath; released by A24.

Starring Brian De Palma.


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