Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(12/16/2016)

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In the world of videogames there’s a term that’s been come to used, at least amongst people with some interest in the financial side of the industry, called “annualization.”  This is used when a company, usually a major publisher like Activision or Ubisoft realizes that one of their series is a really popular cash cow and put enough resources into it to have multiple teams working on multiple sequels to it at once so that they can reliably put out a new installment of the franchise every single year.  This makes sense for sports games like Madden but becomes more problematic when it’s applied to series that are actually supposed to have stories like the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise and even when it’s applied to something like “Call of Duty” which doesn’t have a continuous story it still sort of kills a lot of goodwill from consumers who complain that they’re being bilked into buying the same game over and over again, and even if they’re okay with this in principle there’s no doubt that this practice sort of kills that anticipation that players build up for new installments of franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” who take a slower approach and make each installment an event.  This same practice isn’t unheard of in the world of film, in fact you could argue that the Marvel movies have been doing it for years now, but it seems to have really taken a hold now that Disney is also trying to do something like it with their newly acquired Star Wars license.  Now for basically the first time there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters that isn’t an official “Episode,” a sort of Star Wars “Halo: Reach” that’s officially called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One is set in the days leading up to the start of the original Star Wars film and focuses on a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has been coerced into working as an engineer for the Empire.  With this in her past and her mother dead Jyn has seemingly grown up to be something of a streetwise rebel.  Her parentage does catch the attention of the Rebel Alliance, who believe that Galen may be working with an Imperial general named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on a super weapon that could end the Rebel Alliance once and for all.  As such a task force led by a guy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and featuring a reprogramed Imperial robot called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) break her out of prison and bring her on a mission to find Galen and determine what he’s up to and if necessary neutralize him.

When I first heard the title Rogue One I had envisioned it as a sort of Star Wars flyboy movie that would focus on a squadron of X-Wing pilots, but the film is more of something along the lines of The Guns of Naverone with a team of misfits setting out to retrieve one of cinema’s most famous MacGuffins.  There are definitely some good ideas at its center.  In essence the movie is trying to give the viewer a better idea of what life under the Empire leading up to the original trilogy and what the fighting in the titular wars was like for those in the trenches rather than the VIPs we follow through the other movies.  That’s a great idea in theory, but certain aspects of the execution here leave something to be desired and the movie gets off to a real shaky start.  The film doesn’t begin with an opening text scroll like the other Star Wars movies, which is a smart way to differentiate it from the “real” Star Wars movies with episode numbers, but the movie could maybe use one because the first act of the movie feels like something of a jumble of names we don’t know and political machinations that could have used a bit of extra exposition to untangle.

A big part of the problem may simply be the new characters that the film introduces just aren’t that strong or maybe that the movie doesn’t do a very job of establishing a connection between them and the audience.  Jyn Erso is a character that certainly seems interesting in theory and Felicity Jones does bring a certain something to her, but at the end of the day she’s a bit one-dimensional on the page and her motivations seem a bit inconsistent.  The movie desperately wants her to be this aloof Han Solo type but she spends the whole movie trying to protect her father’s honor and the movie never really seems to decide how many fucks she gives in general.  Similarly Cassian Andor just seems like a very one note company man and other characters like a defecting Imperial pilot with brain damage or something played by Riz Ahmed mostly just seems to confuse matters and the movie just never makes other characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus just kind of seem to be here out of a nebulous obligation for the movie to build a team rather than because there’s any real reason for their presence in the film.  Not every character here is lame, the robot K-2SO is pretty charming for example, but few of them really leave the same kind of impression as the iconic characters from the original trilogy or even some of the new characters introduced in The Force Awakens.  Hell, for all their shortcomings even the prequel trilogy probably introduced more characters that people are likely to remember the names of than this movie.

Beyond that the film is frustrating in that it establishes this darker tone and puts forward some interesting ideas only to then squander them.  In particular I was not impressed with the way the film suggests that the Rebel Alliance had its shortcomings and destructive tendencies only to fail to really explore them.  For example, the initial mission that Jyn Erso is sent on is to find a guy named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who Mon Mothma labels as an extremist Rebel who has ultimately proven to be a liability to the Alliance.  That’s an interesting idea but it goes nowhere, we never really see what makes this guy a Rebel extremist or what he’s up to.  When we meet him he’s certainly an interesting looking character but all he actually does is give Jyn the next piece of the puzzle and send her off to the next location.  Later we’re left to deal with a tension within the group as they debate over whether to assassinate Galen Erso, but the stakes to this are never really clear.  We as an audience know that whatever harm Galen can do has already been done and if it hasn’t then what is the urgency to deal with him?  Later still we have to deal with what is essentially one of these stock standard movie situations where the hero is right about something but the Rebel Alliance acts as this artificial roadblock to the “man of action” who wants to do something and when the Rebels have a change of heart on this point it isn’t terribly clear why.

Having said all that, the film kind of redeems itself in its third act.  It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a big battle scene which is classic Star Wars with the action cutting between three or four different aspects of the action scene each one of them interesting in their own way.  It isn’t just that spectacle that makes this third act work though, it also does a lot of clever things to connect the movie to the beginning of the original Star Wars in ways that are impressively seamless.  I was also impressed with the film’s willingness to have a rather dark ending that isn’t afraid to leave things in a pretty grim place to set up why the Revels so desperately need “a new hope.”  Of course the film’s interest in recreating aspects of the original Star Wars does have some drawbacks.  For one thing, Grand Moff Tarkin is a character in the film, which is narratively logical but it with Peter Cushing having died in 1994 the filmmakers decided to use CGI to resurrect him, an idea I might have been willing to roll with if the technology was there but the result is decidedly a trip into the uncanny valley.  I don’t know that I would have wanted them to recast the character either so I guess I wish they had left him out or maybe done his scenes with those blue hued hologram things or something.  Their decision to bring back Darth Vader for a few scenes was also done with mixed results.  You’d think his costume would make him easy enough to recreate, but there’s just something different about him… maybe David Prowse deserves more credit than he gets.

It’s been a truism in filmmaking that if a movie has a lousy ending it will undue a lot of goodwill a movie has built up and if you have a great ending audiences will forgive a lot of earlier mistakes and Rogue One may prove that to be true.  The film’s last third does indeed really leave you just about ready to completely forgive how poorly written the first two acts are, but not entirely.  I don’t think time and repeat viewings are going to be kind to this movie, the thrill of seeing Darth Vader unleash on some Rebels is going to diminish over time and the unfulfilled potential of the film’s exploration of the messy side of rebellion is going to remain a disappointment.  I must say though, that I feel like a bit conflicted about my reaction to this one.  When The Force Awakens came out I thought it was pretty cool but complained that it stuck too rigidly to the formula of the previous movies and relied too much on old characters and nostalgia, and now here comes a movie that boldly eschews the old formula and plays by a new set of rules and it’s still not really what I want.  I guess that’s what’s frustrating about the movie: it seems to have the right idea and go about it the right way, it just botches the execution along the way and doesn’t handle its best ideas the right way.  Despite all that, on balance there is definitely enough here to make the movie a mostly worthwhile experience as the best parts work like gangbusters, it’s just that you’re kind of left with what could have been.

Rams(3/6/2016)

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It’s too tempting to take the easy way out sometimes.  Film buffs like to champion the seeking out of unique counter-programing but all too often find themselves marching off to see the exact same Hollywood product that everyone else is going to.  That’s not always a terrible thing, Hollywood does make worthy product sometimes and even when they don’t it isn’t exactly the worst crime to indulge in some junk food every once in a while, but all too often people find themselves just following the heard off to some questionable movies even when it’s against their better judgement and I’m just as guilty as anyone.  Case in point; this week I was strongly thinking about going to see the movie Deadpool.  I wasn’t thinking that way because I really thought that was going to be a great movie, in fact I was pretty skeptical about it what with its obnoxious looking trailer and untested director.  Rather, the only reason I was really planning to see it was because I knew it was making a lot of money and wanted to get in on the cultural conversation.  I did stop myself, however, because I’m trying to make a concerted effort to challenge myself a little more and go off the beaten path more often, at least when distribution patterns allow.  And that’s why I instead went to see an Icelandic movie about feuding brothers this week and will probably only be catching up with Deadpool when it comes out on blu-ray.

Rams is set in a small pastoral village in rural Iceland and focuses on a middle aged man named Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) who has been living on a sheep farm in a plot next door to his brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), also a sheep farmer, although the two of them haven’t been on speaking terms in years.  As the film begins both are bringing in prized sheet, both descendants of the family’s strong bloodline, to a village competition where they come in first and second place.  Jealous of his brother’s first place finish, Gummi inspects the winning sheep and thinks he sees signs of a livestock disease called scrapie.  This poses a threat to the entire island’s herd and eventually it starts looking like the brothers are both going to have to exterminate their sheep.  This is a devastating blow for both of them and soon Gummi starts making plans to take desperate measures.

On its surface Rams is a dry comedy about a couple of eccentrics bickering over unspecified issues, a sort of Grumpy Old Men but for a slightly more discerning crowd.  There is, however, a little more going on here.  At its base this is a movie about the power of legacy and family dynamics.  Throughout the movie there seems to be very little discussion of the actual economics of sheep raising and when the herd is threatened there is very little discussion of how their slaughter will effect anyone’s bottom lines, especially in the case of the two central brothers.  Rather these two men’s attitude towards their sheep are largely symbolic of the brothers’ attitudes towards one another.  At the start of the film Gummi largely uses his sheep in order to compete with his brother and prove himself to be the better farmer than his sibling rival, but as the film goes on he starts to be less concerned with his own sheep and more concerned with this bloodline that he views as his family birthright and Kiddi starts to feel the same.

The humor here is really deadpan, to the point where I hesitate to even call it a comedy for fear of making people expect it to be this laugh out loud kind of thing rather than a story with a sort of dry comedic undertone.  It also has a sort of homespun charm to it in the way it knowingly conveys the valley its set in and give the audience a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live there.  It’s one of those movies that is a little hard to reach a final verdict on, there’s nothing I really dislike about it but its accomplishments are also kind of modest and specific.  At Cannes it competed in the Un Certain Regard division and won the top prize there, and that sounds about right, it’s a movie I have a certain regard for to be sure.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

The Revenant(1/9/2016)

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Did Alejandro G. Iñárritu run around as a child stealing future movie critics’ bikes?  I’m inclined to think so since there isn’t much else to explain the strange cadre of critics who seem almost incapable of liking anything this guy puts his name on.  Critics were pretty solidly on board with his 2000 debut Amores Perros, which was something of a small underdog (no pun intended) and the backlash was still pretty low-key when he made his English-language debut 21 Grams, but a cadre of critics really started to revolt when he made his 2006 film Babel which many dismissed as the second coming of Crash.  Make no mistake, a sizable number of critics liked all of these movies, nothing that Iñárritu has ever made has dipped into “rotten” territory on Rottentomatoes, but the people in the backlash are loud and insistent.  Few of Iñárritu’s critics question his technical skills, most focus their anger on his sensibilities.  The argument is that he’s a “miserablist” who likes to make characters suffer and then wallow in their anguish and I can maybe sort of see where that sentiment comes from.  I can certainly see why, for example, his 2010 film Biutiful could be seen as being a bit too dour for its own good, but I thought for sure that the Iñárritu haters would eat their words once they got a gander of his 2014 film Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film which channeled his usual intensity into a rip-roaring satire which was both funny and a great technical showcase.  That was certainly his most critically acclaimed film and even went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and yet there still seemed to be a notable cadre of critics who were less than grateful for the creative and exciting film they were just handed and declared that they not only disliked but outright hated the movie.  Haters gonna hate I guess, and it sounds like there are still people out there with knives out for his latest movie, a frontier adventure film called The Revenant.

The film is set in Montana and the Dakotas circa 1823, about twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase and before the period typically associated with the “wild west.”  The film begins as an American fur trapping party being led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is attacked by Arikara Indians.  The ensuing battle kills a sizable portion of the hunters and the survivors soon find themselves on the run and forced to hid most of the valuable furs they managed to save.  Their guide, a mountain man named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is accompanied by his half-Indian son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is soon leading them through the forest.  It looks like they’re going to make it when suddenly Glass stumbles upon a giant grizzly bear who believes him to be a threat to her cubs and he is suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a mauling.  Glass survives this encounter but is seriously injured and it soon becomes clear that the remaining trappers cannot carry him all the way on a stretcher so the Captain offers extra money to two volunteers to stay behind to see if Glass recovers or dies.  The two who offer to stay behind are a young recruit named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and a grizzled veteran named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and while Jim’s intentions appear to be pure it soon becomes clear the Fitzgerald is only doing it for a quick buck and when he decides to betray Glass he’s left having to fend for himself and also seek his revenge.

If I have one major complaint about The Revenant it’s probably that the characters in it generally lack complexity.  Captain Andrew Henry and Jim Bridger are both unambiguously noble characters while Fitzgerald borders on being cartoonishly evil.  The film does a fairly credible job of explaining the financial stakes that lead Fitzgerald do what he does but you can’t help but think the guy is a bad seed the second you see him and you instantly wonder why anyone else in the hunting party is willing to trust him for a second and the movie could have done a lot more to sympathize with the somewhat legitimate concerns that might have led him down the path he goes.  If there’s ambiguity about any character here it’s probably our main protagonist in part because he’s driven by both an admirable will to survive as well as an unhealthy if understandable thirst for revenge.  Di Caprio has been getting a lot of acclaim for his acting in this movie and while he’s clearly dedicated to his work here and gives a great physical performance I don’t think his transformation was quite perfect.  As grizzled as Di Caprio looks, to me he still sounds like he has the voice of a 21st century millionaire, especially when compared to Tom Hardy’s dedicated rasp.

It is best not to get too wrapped up in the themes of revenge and the occasional bits of psychological character study that the film barters in.  The Revenant is first and foremost an adventure story and is best viewed as such.  That’s the lens through which I viewed it and the lens through which it thrives.  It reminded me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which was another film that was shot like a prestige project and had certain flashes of supernatural import but was at its heart a brutal little action movie about a guy who goes on a trying odyssey of survival and revenge.  As a pure action movie the film is really effective.  Alejandro G. Iñárritu has always had a certain visceral quality to his filmmaking and Birdman was obviously a technical showcase but this is the first time he’s worked with a 100+ million dollar budget and the first time he’s really tried to make large scale set-pieces.  He sets the tone early on with a blazing action scene where the trapping party is attacked by an Indian raiding party.  Iñárritu moves his camera with that calculated intensity that the best modern action scenes tend to employ and really gets the view in on the action.  There are other cool scenes throughout the film like its climactic knife fight and then of course there’s the film’s central bear mauling scene which is effectively suspenseful even if some of the ursine CGI wasn’t everything it needed to be.

2015 has had an odd surplus of movies like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies that hardly has a thing in them that I’d change and yet they still never really felt like something particularly special despite their seeming perfection.  The Revenant is kind of the opposite, there were definitely aspects of the movie that I think are flawed but they really don’t matter because the parts that work are so damn good that they elevate the whole damn thing.  I’m inclined to play the “pure cinema” card with this one.  Lubezki’s cinematography is so beautiful and the action scenes that Iñárritu has created work so well that I’m inclined to overlook the suspicion in the back of my mind that the film is ultimately just a shallow action movie when you boil it down.  Even on that purely visual level there are things that still bug me like the CGI bear, so why did I still love the movie?  Maybe there’s just something about the way Iñárritu crafts cinema that appeals to me, even when he was making something as actively unpleasant as Biutiful I couldn’t help but be sucked in by his filmmaking and seeing his take on the action/adventure genre was really cool.

**** out of Four

Room(10/31/2015)

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Warning: This review contains spoilers, albeit nothing that hasn’t already been spoiled by the film’s rather questionable trailer.

Everyone in Hollywood is familiar with the concept of the “elevator pitch:” the concise proposal that any filmmaker should have prepared in case they ever find themselves riding in the same elevator (or in some other comparable situation) with somebody who could potentially make that project happen.  The thing is, elevator pitches are also an important part of being a movie fan, especially the kind of filmbuff who routinely has acquaintances coming up to them and say “hey, you see a lot of movies, what are some of the good movies out now.”  This is a fraught question.  If you tell them what you really think is your favorite movie out right now you end up sending them to a three hour Turkish movie or a Lars Von Trier provocation or some other movie that they probably aren’t ready for unless they’re as big a movie fan as you, but you also don’t want to condescend to them and assume that the only thing you can recommend to them is a Hollywood genre film, but also because even if you recommend something that you think “regular” people would like it can be hard to explain why in one sentence.  Take the new film Room, which won the audience prize at Toronto (a common signifier of accessible arthouse fare) and which I think will be well liked by anyone who gives it a chance but which is also a film whose elevator pitch starts with “a woman is kidnapped and sexually assaulted for seven years,” a sentence which will almost certainly be met with some uneasy look.

Hear me out.  The film is about a woman named Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) who was kidnapped by a strange man she knows only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) at age seventeen and kept locked in a ten by ten foot shed that’s been converted into a sort of apartment and is apparently repeatedly raped by this horrible man.  At some point in her captivity she became pregnant and gave birth inside the shed.  The story picks up five years later as Joy is trying to raise this five year old child named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) under these extremely trying circumstances.  How does one do that?  Joy’s solution was to lie to the child and rather than explain that he’s being held in captivity to tell him that this small room is the full extent of the world and that everything he sees on the television they’ve been given is a compete fabrication that’s been sent from outer space.  This allows the boy to, in a sense, not know what he’s missing and makes him feel a lot more comfortable than he might otherwise have been while in captivity but also forces the mother to live a lie and perhaps makes the situation a lot harder for her.  At a point though, it becomes clear that they can’t live like this for much longer and soon Joy begins plotting her escape.

The people behind the advertising for Room seem to be keenly aware of the “elevator pitch” problem that I described earlier and have opted to sell the film as a triumph over adversity and have cut trailers which more or less give away the whole movie.  These trailers are accurate in their reflection of the film’s tone but they’re also spoil the fact that the film’s second half is very different from the first, and knowing this ahead of time isn’t ideal.  However, since the cat is clearly out of the bag I’m not going to dance around the fact that this mother and child escape from their captivity any further.  That escape scene, by the way, is really tense and very well rendered but this shouldn’t be misconstrued as some kind of escape movie either.  Instead this is a movie about the emotional ramifications of the trauma that “Old Nick” inflicted on these two people and the existential quandary that Joy accidentally created by choosing not to tell Jack about the outside world.

What really impressed me about the film was the way it managed to deal with the horror of that first hour without flinching while still preventing the film from being unwatchably oppressive.  Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the source novel) seem to have accomplished this by subtly shifting the viewpoint in these early sections between the mother and the son.  If the story had been entirely told by the mother it would have almost felt like a grim horror film and would have been really hard to sit though, but if it had entirely been told by the son it would have been really strangely upbeat in a way that would be off-putting, but Abrahamson seems to find a perfect balance and these shifts in viewpoint don’t feel gimmicky or even noticeable.  In the second half of the film he finds his way around another whole new set of challenges because there’s some stuff in that second half that could have come off kind of Hallmark if not handled just right.  Somehow Abrahamson does manage to make Jack and Joy’s re-entry into society inspirational but not cheesy, in part because he doesn’t ignore the challenges that they’d both face.

Of course a big part of why Abrahamson is able to pull off this trick is that he has a really strong cast to work with.  Obviously Brie Larson is the main attraction here and continues the move into more serious material that she began with the 2013 indie Short Term 12.  Larson does a good job here of capturing this character’s emotional turmoil without over-playing it and also successfully taps into the fact that she’s playing a character that was kidnapped at seventeen and had her emotional growth somewhat stunted as a result.  Her main co-star is of course Jacob Tremblay as Jack, who does a pretty good job of not being an annoying kid.  Tremblay is about nine years old now and was presumably about eight when the movie was being filmed but does a good job of plausibly playing a character that’s about five.  I wouldn’t necessarily rank this among the greatest child performances of recent years like Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild or Hunter McCracken in Tree of Life but he does do a pretty good job to be sure.  There are also a variety of strong performances by other cast members like Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, and Tom McCamus but the heart of it all comes back to those two main performances.

I saw an HBO special a couple years back where four famous standup comedians were talking about their trade and I remember there being a part of that concersation where Louie C.K. mentioned a controversial joke he used to tell about rape which kind of teetered on being in bad taste but still managed to avoid offending most audiences.  Jerry Seinfeld pointed out that he thought the appeal of the joke wasn’t so much that it was actually funny so much as it was entertaining to see C.K. “tap-dance over six laser beams” in its construction.  That’s kind of how I feel about Room, I don’t know that this is a story that I was ever really dying to see made into a film but I also can’t help but wonder and how skillfully the people who made it manage to escape pretty much every pitfall unscathed.  Its sneaky in the way it gets its hooks into you and suddenly has you more invested in its characters than you think you would and in how it gets you on board with plot developments which would sound kind of questionable on paper.

**** out of Four

Rush(9/28/2013)

9-28-2013Rush

Two years ago, when I was discussing the film Moneyball I told a lot of people that while I mostly liked it, I didn’t think it would be all that interesting or understandable to people who aren’t baseball fans.  Later that year, when I saw the biographical Formula 1 documentary Senna I came to wonder if I was wrong about that.  It occurred to me that the fact that Senna was about a foreign sport that I wasn’t familiar with had actually increased my enjoyment of the film because it allowed me to watch a legendary sports story play out without any foreknowledge or preconceived notions about the real events that inspired the film.  It’s with that in mind that I had some high hopes for the film Rush, which is also about a famous rivalry in the history of Formula 1 racing, which is a sport that I know nothing about but hold no ill-will towards.

The rivalry at the film’s center is between a pair of drivers named James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the film primarily covers their actions during the 1976 F1 season.  To put it lightly, these guys hate each other, and most of what they do in the film is motivated by an intense desire to crush the other.  Early in the season it appears that Lauda, who moved up from lower divisions earlier and was on the Ferrari team, but as the season rolls on Hunt begins to catch up and it quickly begins to seem like there’s going to be a real race to the finish to see who will win the season.

Rush was written by Peter Morgan, a writer whose mostly made his name writing non-fiction films The Queen and Frost/Nixon which revolve around strong willed people clashing against one another.  As such, I can totally see why he’d be attracted to this particular rivalry because Lauda and Hunt are a pair of opposites who contrast one another in a number of interesting ways.  Both men exemplify different sides or what is supposed to make a great racer: Lauda is a gearhead and strategist who perfectly calibrates his cars and uses his intellect to race effectively while Hunt is a daredevil and thrill seeker who uses his courage and passion to win the day.  Their differences continue when they’re off the track.  Hunt lives hard, he drinks heavily, smokes heavily, sleeps with groupies, and carries himself with a cocky rockstar attitude.  Lauda, by contrast, is a rather cold person with limited social skills and a lot of people just don’t like the guy.

One could easily envision a version of this film that only follows one of these guys while vilifying the other, but the truth of the matter that both racers are assholes in their own unique way.  I think the film will prove to be something of a Rorschach test where different viewers will empathize with one racer or the other.  Personally I found Lauda to be the more sympathetic of the two, but of course I would, I’m a lot like him and know what it’s like to have to live in the shadow of a dumb jock who thinks he’s a hero because he behaves like a self-destructive dickhead.  Conversely I’m sure there are a lot of extroverts who would find Hunt’s antics to be amusing or enviable and think that Lauda is a know-it-all weasel.  The film never really takes sides in the matter, and both racers are given their moments to shine both on and off the track.

So, we’ve got an interesting script by sports movie standards, what about the execution?  Well the film had one big red flag on its record in the form of its director: Ron Howard.  Ron Howard is a filmmaker who’s shown some promise in the past, but since then he’s become the epitome of dull and safe prestige filmmaking.  Still, there was something about this project which made me think it had a chance of bringing Howard back to his former Apollo 13 glory.  This, however, was not to be.  Howard doesn’t botch the film necessarily, but he is the weak link.  As has been the case in a lot of Howard’s recent work, the cinematography here is muddy and unpleasant and the editing is good, but not as tight and perfect as you’d want from a big budget auto racing movie.  In fact, there really isn’t a ton of racing in this movie, we mostly just see short fragments of any given race and we rarely see an entire race play out.

In final analysis, Rush is a good movie, but not a great one.  Peter Morgan is on to something with this story, but he telegraphs too many of his messages in his dialogue and while both actors are good (especially Brühl) I wouldn’t say either give performances for the ages.  I can’t help but think that this movie would have been so much more if its screenplay had been handed to someone who was in a better position to make a proper action/sports movie.  I can only imagine how well it could have turned out in the hands of a Danny Boyle or a David Fincher or a Michael Mann.  Instead we have the version directed by Ron Howard and… it could have turned out a lot worse I guess.  It probably is Howards best film in almost a decade, so, there’s that.

*** out of Four