The Marvelous Brie Larson — #7

Welcome to the seventh and final edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series that has revolved around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. All good things have to come to an end, and as spotty as the posts have been I hope you’ve enjoyed the selections I’ve chosen throughout the year.

Brief recap of the feature: the posts weren’t very consistent and overall it seems I went 7-of-12 on the year (2 action movies; 2 comedies; 3 dramatic comedies) which kind of feels under-accomplish-y and lame. At the same time that’s an average of just above 50% and considering I haven’t yet filled an entire calendar year with roles from any actor I’ve featured so far (even though that’s the whole idea . . .) maybe I should be a glass half-full kinda guy on this.

Besides, looking back on roles I coulda/shoulda/woulda gone with, I’m actually fairly confident I covered the hits. The Glass Castle (2017) and this year’s Just Mercy, both of which reunite Larson with her Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, are two notable oversights. Most of what I haven’t gotten to though seem to be bit parts in movies I don’t remember much about or at all (i.e. she was in Trainwreck?).

Which brings us to this month, where I’ve literally saved the best for last. Lucky #7 finds Brie Larson in top form in Room, this powerful and quietly devastating drama about a mother and son held captive in a backyard shed for years. Director Lenny Abrahamson adapts his sixth feature from the highly praised 2010 novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue.

Brie Larson as Joy Newsome/”Ma” in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/thriller

Premise: Held captive for 7 years in an enclosed space, a woman and her young son finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time.

Accolades: Academy and Golden Globe awards — Best Actress

Character Background: Technically speaking Room is told through the perspective of seven-year-old Jack, played with incredible nuance and maturity by Jacob Tremblay in what proved a stunning break-out role for an actor yet to celebrate their tenth birthday (in fact Tremblay was about the same age as his character). His naivety undoubtedly makes Room such a powerful and heartbreaking experience, but you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning “Ma” and the role she plays in Jack’s venturing out into the big, wide world.

I can’t speak to how the character is in the book but Larson’s Joy/”Ma” is something of a wonder. She’s incredibly resolute and stoic, for years keeping her despair locked inside while providing pretty much everything for Jack a loving mother would with much more in the way of space and comfort. That is until “Ma” concocts a bold plan and Room breaks both into bigger, open spaces and into a devastating second half. You would think the part spent in captivity would be the toughest stretch to watch but it’s in the second half road-to-recovery — and all that that entails, emotionally, physically (haircuts, anyone?) and especially psychologically — where I had a hard time dealing. I attribute my discomfort to Larson’s powerful portrayal of the all-encompassing, long-lasting effects of PTSD. She’s at her very best in this movie. As she convalesces at her parents’ home she also unravels, burdened both by guilt — not helped by her own father (played by William H. Macy) refusing to acknowledge the “bastard child” — and her son’s confusion and anger. Room is a movie that shows how challenging the road to recovery can be, and yet for as unrelentingly bleak and difficult as it is to watch it also provides a beautiful tribute to a mother-son bond. This is a unique circumstance that proves the kind of storms unconditional love is built to withstand.

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Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

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Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

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Beautiful Boy

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018 (limited)

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Written by: Luke Davies; Felix van Groeningen

Directed by: Felix van Groeningen

I think it is important to note how specific an experience Beautiful Boy describes. Closing titles reveal some alarming statistics about the pervasiveness of drug abuse in America but the film does not presume to speak for everyone. This is about how a drug addiction impacted the Sheffs, a stable, well-to-do, tight-knit Californian family. In particular this is what was true for a father and his son — the latter held hostage for years to a chronic methamphetamine addiction. Adapted from a pair of memoirs written by David (played by Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy is an exceptional story of survival and a testament to the power of unconditional love.

In his first English language film Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is fully committed to a realistic portrayal of the physical and psychological tolls associated with crystal meth use. His direction is pragmatic and sympathetic, albeit beholden to what his subjects were willing to share in their written accounts. Given some of the scenes you have to sit through, you don’t really get the impression they hold much back. The shape of the narrative assumes the cyclical pattern of addiction, relapse and recovery, Groeningen taking scissors to a scrapbook and rearranging moments non-chronologically to create a sense of disorientation and of prolonged struggle. Ultimately there is less emphasis on providing a catalyst. Beautiful Boy is driven largely by mood, evident in its almost anachronistic (and borderline over-reliance upon) song placement in certain moments. It appeals to the pathos rather than trying to be some philosophical treatise on why people do crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is an extraordinarily well-acted relationship drama. Indeed Groeningen is fortunate to have been gifted the talents of 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who dives in deep here to become Nic (reportedly losing 20+ pounds for the role) as well as those of Steve Carell, who, in another impressively grounded performance, I couldn’t help but find deeply sympathetic. It is his David who we meet first, seeking a consult with an expert off-screen as he suspects Nic has been using. His son has been conspicuously absent from the house for several days. When he finally returns, David wants him to attend rehab. Nic agrees to go. Progress is soon made and it seems the problem is resolving itself. At least until the restrictions are gradually dropped and Nic transfers to a halfway house where supervision is less strict and patients can come and go as they please.

And so begins our journey down a dark and dangerous corridor where the slippery slope of recreational drug use finally gives way to a more obsessive fixation with a particular high — in this case, the mind-warping, life-in-technicolor, loose-lipped euphoria of crystal meth. Chalamet is unflinching in his physical portrayal. But the performance goes to a whole other psychic level when it comes to conveying what the drug is doing to his brain. Speaking in generalities here, his behavior becomes more erratic and more unpleasant. He turns against his own family, owning up to nothing while asking for more money to “go to New York” or “to go see mom” (Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife Vicki) — all of which is code for “gimme my shit.”

Carell is also brilliant, though he is at his best when sharing scenes with his young co-star. His role is far more reactive, not necessarily secondary but reliant upon an exchange with some other character to really carry weight. Carell depicts a parent utterly lost and without a road map. Because this is as much his story as it is Nic’s, he has a few of his own stand-out moments, like the time he snorts coke off his home office desk to try and “get” what it is that Nic seems to find in drugs. Meanwhile, as David’s new wife Karen, Maura Tierney impresses. Even while understanding the precariousness of the situation she is at her most firm and resolute when push comes to shove, her strength suggesting things might have gone another way had she not been there.

While the indiscriminate brutality of addiction is a big part of the experience, Beautiful Boy isn’t entirely downbeat. In sharing their personal stories, David and Nic aim to provide others hope. For the Sheffs it was the will to never give up or give in that gave them hope. That resolve is what makes Beautiful Boy worthwhile enduring.

Recommendation: A very difficult film to watch due to its committed, deeply human performances. Drug abuse is portrayed in a brutally honest way, but maybe this helps: at least this isn’t as overtly graphic as Requiem for a Dream

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Everything.”

“Everything.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters)

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017 (Netflix)

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Written by: Max Botkin; Kerry Williamson

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola

In the context of Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s dystopian crime thriller What Happened to Monday — a.k.a. Seven Sisters — China’s methods of dealing with an extraordinary overpopulation crisis would be no less controversial but they would also no longer be the exception; rather, the opposite. In a not-so-distant future we’ve exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and organizations like the Child Allocation Bureau have become necessary evils, instituting similar if not harsher one-child-per-family mandates across the globe. Unlike in China, where violators face stiff financial penalties, in the film excess offspring are taken away and put into cryogenic sleep, after which they’re promised to “wake up to a better world.”

Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe)’s life becomes impossibly complicated when his wife dies after giving birth to identical septuplets (all played by one actress at the child and adult stages — Clara Read and Noomi Rapace respectively). To protect his illegally large family Terrence establishes a complex set of rules that will allow his daughters to come and go from the house with some degree of freedom. Each is named after a day of the week and is allowed to go out on “their day.” When they do, they assume a collective, physical identity of one Karen Settman, their mother. To keep a consistent image every detail of each trip outside is shared with the group so everyone remains on the same page.

This routine is maintained for some 30 years, until finally one of the siblings fails to return home after work. Fearing her capture at the hands of the C.A.B.’s head honcho Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), an intense, scary woman who believes the One Child Policy is the only way to save future generations from living in the same squalor, the six other ‘Karen Settmans’ debate whether to turn themselves in or risk blowing their cover by going to save the one.

Regrettably What Happened to Monday is defined by broad shapes and genre tropes. It features seven different personalities but the overall piece fails to establish one of its very own. Rapace continues to use her striking beauty to channel chameleonic qualities and they, along with her hairstylists, are put to great use here. She elevates the entire picture, giving it a bleeding heart, as does a surprisingly grounded performance from Dafoe as dear old dad. But the latter isn’t tasked with interacting with his own likeness on screen.

It’s impressive how much two actors can inform a film’s personality, yet they’re still not enough to overcome clumsy writing that throws aside logic and narrative cohesion in service of an increasingly action-laden plot. As the dire circumstances devolve the incompetence of the bad guys never ceases to amaze. It approaches something close to a farce with the number of convenient plot mechanics that force us into a grand reveal that’s never as grand or as shocking as it should have been.

Still, the film’s well-made enough to be frivolously entertaining. Wirkola’s firm if unremarkable direction gets us from Point A to Point B with enough style, grit and emotion to make What Happened to Monday an above-average dystopian drama worth recommending to those who are less fussy. And Rapace’s ability to emote more than makes up for much of the less successful thematic ruminations. As we watch a family getting torn apart in a variety of cruel ways, it’s the actress’ unique expressiveness that magnifies the emotion, that gets us to re-invest just a little bit more, in spite of everything.

Recommendation: Emotionally engaging but ultimately familiar and never as deeply cutting as it could be, as an epic family tragedy that unfolds piecewise, What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters) offers enough solid thrills and wicked action sequences to be memorable but as a broader commentary on what’s going on in our world today as far as overpopulation, this movie fails to express its concern in a way that’s truly noticeable, much less urgent.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “What happens to one of you, happens to all of you.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

It Comes at Night

Release: Friday, June 9, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film that traps the audience along with two families in an abandoned house in the woods that, over the course of a slow-burning 90 minutes, turns into a cauldron of fear, mistrust and paranoia as they try to survive an unnatural threat that is terrorizing the world.

In his 2014 debut, the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama Krisha, Shults kept things in the family by casting several of his own relatives, including his aunt in the lead. It was an inspired decision that rewarded Shults with both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and plenty of post-festival buzz. His preoccupation with the family dynamic continues here, with the story centered firmly around a patriarch, Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, who must negotiate a tricky situation when he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are discovered by another survivor.

In 2017, Shults is keeping things brutally real. It Comes at Night is a punishing, indie-esque horror/thriller hybrid that proves to err is indeed human, except during the apocalypse, where it becomes pretty much fatal. The story remains a simple and grim portrait of survivalism. Shults spares not one second in establishing a tone of solemnity as the movie opens with the euthanasia of an older family member who seems to be in the final stages of something awful. Gone are the days of hospice care; now when they get sick we simply dump our loved ones in a shallow grave and light them on fire. Forced to take part in these unpleasantries, Travis starts to have recurring nightmares.

Preexisting tensions get ratcheted up another notch when a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) stumbles upon their remote outpost. While being interrogated by Paul, having spent the night gagged and bound to a tree, he explains he has come looking for water, that he didn’t know the house was occupied, and that he’s legitimately desperate. After some thoughtful beard-stroking Paul decides that at the very least, the newcomer doesn’t seem sick. He will travel with Will to trade for supplies as Will claims to have an abundance of food. Sarah suggests they bring Will’s wife and child back with them so they can increase their security against any future break-ins. (Plus, you know, it’d be nice having company around other than the Grim Reaper.)

Details of what caused the catastrophe remain sparse throughout the film. We don’t even know much about what it is that ails us, other than it’s contracted through physical contact. And that it’s bad. Really bad. There’s something distressing about the unknown and Shults exploits that fear to extreme effect, accumulating all of the film’s miseries and supposed lesson-learning into one spectacularly devastating finale from which you will need days to recover. It’s an admonishment for our predictable behavior, for when we, even in the most desperate of situations, just can’t help but try to fuck each other over. The nihilism on display is both tragic and refreshingly honest.

Recommendation: To be perfectly blunt: if steamy sex scenes as rewards for characters who have endured the impossible are what you seek from your movies, you’re standing in the wrong line. But for those who appreciate horror that doesn’t condescend or stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is harsh as all hell, they’ll find much to latch onto with this beast. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “If they’re sick, then I am too.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Paul G — #9

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was brought in as a psychological consultant on a top-secret government project involving an artificially intelligent being named Morgan. All two of us who saw that movie know how that turned out. Now this month we’re going to find out what happens when you take Paul and shove him into a movie about comic books, and no, we’re not going to be talking his contribution to the spectacle of disappointment that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This month we’re going to be discussing a role with a little bit more substance and nuance than his admittedly terrible Aleksei Sytsevich.

paul-giamatti-in-american-splendor

Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor.

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Biopic/comedy/drama

Plot Synopsis: An original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar.

Character Profile: Harvey Pekar was an underground comic book writer who developed a unique style and voice by creating the ‘American Splendor’ comics, stories that were autobiographical in nature and that seemed to elevate his everyman status to that of a quasi-hero as he set about dealing with his mundane struggles in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But if you asked him, Harvey was just another guy, another depressed fellow living in a depressing city working a depressing job. Naturally his work reflected a rather dim outlook on life. Born of Polish immigrants, Harvey was one of the few white kids to grow up on his block in a Cleveland suburb and as a result, found himself often being beaten up and without friends. An unhappy childhood seemed to bleed into adulthood. He attended college for a year before dropping out, enlisted in the armed forces but was soon discharged — allegedly for personal hygiene-related reasons. After shuffling through a series of miserable jobs he finally became a file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital. His friends circle was limited to those with whom he worked, and his romantic life was defined by a series of hastily made decisions that ended in two divorces, though in 1984 he met Joyce Brabner, a writer and comic book shop owner from Delaware. She had written a letter to him seeking a way to obtain a single copy of his latest comic since her store had already sold out. The 2003 film American Splendor divulges much of this, as well as the time the two spent collaborating on ‘Our Cancer Year,’ a graphic novel based upon Harvey’s diagnosis and survival of lymphoma, employing a thoroughly unique format — a hybrid of documentary and dramatic/comedic elements — to bring his personal tales to life. And Harvey may have staked a reputation through his ability to convey mundane struggles in comic form but he never quit his job as a file clerk until he retired. He was also a prolific record collector and dabbled in music and literary critiques. He passed away in Cleveland Heights in 2010 at the age of 73 after an accidental overdose on anti-depression medication having been diagnosed a third time with cancer.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti very well could be at a career-best with this fascinating character, one who teeters on the edge of being sympathetic due to his relentless pessimism and iconoclastic tendencies. There’s something that Giamatti does that seems very small but that which very nearly ultimately defines the creator of American Splendor as a person. Apparently Harvey had a tendency to yell whenever he became frustrated or upset, and Giamatti milks it for all its worth, sounding in some early scenes as though he’s just rubbed his vocal chords against sandpaper for an hour. A memorable (read: hilarious) scene in a diner when he receives the good news that a fellow comic would be willing to illustrate his creations finds the actor shouting out with glee, causing a scene. His voice cracks like a high schooler going through The Puberty. His vocal issues come into play a couple of other times, and while they’re certainly not the only thing to take away from this performance, these moments are excellent touches. The tenor of his voice, when not breaking, is mildly saddening,  Giamatti powerfully channeling a sense of hopelessness and fatigue. Rest assured, though, the actor manages to effect a spectrum of emotions on his journey from a nobody to a relatively obscure somebody. In spite of himself, Harvey remains a compelling presence, a certifiable Average Joe with an unusual gift for creating. This is outstanding work from the actor and quite possibly my favorite role of his.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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The Light Between Oceans

the-light-between-oceans-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Cianfrance

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance has emerged once again with another sweeping, emotional epic, this time The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the 2012 international bestseller by M.L. Stedman. Maybe you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s previous effort. From an ambitious meditation on how one man’s actions can have a rippling effect across generations of family, he turns now to a deeply personal exploration of a young husband and wife trying to start a family.

‘Deeply personal.’ Some people might call it something else, like . . . melodramatic. Which it is; The Light Between Oceans is so melodramatic. It’s also often too depressing for its own good; a joke or two wouldn’t have hurt, but you know what else it is? Incredibly well-acted. So much so, in fact, that leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander found art imitating life, er, rather, inspiring it. Since working on the project the two have entered into a romantic affair that they have (largely) kept private. Given everything the actors go through bringing this tale to life, it’s not that surprising to find fictional romance has begotten real-life romance. (If only the same could have applied to John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.)

That last paragraph was risky for me. I vowed once upon a time that I would never allow my musings on film to become a gossip column. But I just find it so interesting in this case because actors this good — and these specific actors — often make it impossible to discern professionalism from deeper personal bonding. The Light Between Oceans absolutely demands chemistry, in the same way The Notebook demanded chemistry. In the same way A Walk to Remember demanded it. Fortunately, Oceans is a great deal better than one of those two, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the one with Ryan Gosling — incidentally an actor who has already appeared twice in Cianfrance’s brief but memorable back catalogue.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned from the Great War to a remote fishing village in Western Australia. He’s taking over the post at the Janus Rock lighthouse after the former keeper quit by, quote, throwing himself over the side of a cliff. (Hint-hint: this job is difficult insofar as it is lonely.) Tom believes isolation will be good for him after his horrendous experiences in the war. After three months he takes a ferry back into town, where he happens across a beautiful girl named Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who takes a keen interest in him. Her father Bill (Aussie Garry McDonald) is actually the one who took Tom on as a keeper.

There’s an undeniable spark between Tom and Isabel — not the kind that’s scripted, but that which evolves from actors being genuinely comfortable in one another’s presence. The only thing more natural than Vikander’s smile is the pair’s affection for one another. Soon enough they’re crossing off one major item on the checklist for A Perfect Life Together and find themselves happily married, ready to start a new life together on the lonely island. Love faces its toughest test after the couple’s first miscarriage. After a second, life becomes downright unbearable. Then, quite serendipitously, a rowboat washes ashore carrying what appears to be a dead man along with a still-living infant.

The Light Between Oceans is meditative, a two-plus-hour runtime stretching out like the yawning cerulean gap between Australia and the nearest land mass. It is a very. Long. Sit. Perhaps that’s due to the frequent bouts of depression we must battle along with our characters that makes it feel that way. It’s slow going but Cianfrance, along with his DP Adam Arkapaw, makes the physical world such a wonder to behold. The whole thing feels like a postcard from Australia. Too bad the weight of the complex morality play ongoing eventually causes it to collapse in on itself come the dying light of the film.

It’s not Rachel Weisz‘s fault, who plays the part of Hannah Roennfeldt, a grieving mother who recently lost her husband and baby out at sea (cough-cough). We’ve been expecting (or is that, dreading?) to meet her. Her tremendous performance certainly leaves a mark, even if the character itself is more of a tool rather than a real person. Hannah represents a physical consequence of Tom and Isabel’s actions and yet the way Cianfrance chooses to insert her  (and depending on how faithful an adaptation this is, this flaw could be true of the book as well) feels blatantly manipulative. Her backstory is handled in a simple flashback or two, as opposed to the hour we get to spend with the other two. The manner in which she is brought into close proximity to the couple turns out to be the most offensive contrivance of all.

Contrivances be damned, though, when an experience lingers in the mind like this one does. It may not be easy viewing and it can be emotionally manipulative — the knife-twisting in the final act really proved a bridge too far for me — but Oceans is a film with tons of heart. It is further confirmation of why I love these actors. It’s a movie that made me feel, that made me bleed. Okay, not really. But still.

the-light-between-oceans

Recommendation: The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned romance epic whose frequent trips into melodrama remind me why I can’t do romance that often. But when one features stars as reliable as these two, I find it very hard to say no. There’s a lot to like about it, including the breathtaking postcards-from-Australia scenery. It’s all a grand gesture, and for those who don’t mind sitting through a long, meditative drama this should definitely appeal.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “One day this will all feel like a dream.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: Believeland

'Believeland' movie poster

Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

LeBron Jamesland

* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

https://vimeo.com/157732750

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Photo credits: http://www.espnfrontrow.com; http://www.espn.com 

Room

'Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Emma Donoghue

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

How does one begin to describe a film like Room? Do I write a poem? Do I send Lenny Abrahamson a letter saying ‘thanks?’ Do I wax lyrical about the emotional highs and lows only a film about a mother and son being isolated in a garden shed for years can provide?

Nah, not really. I’m not feeling any of that. What I do feel is that I’ve had the life force sucked out of me after watching this, the big screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel. If this is meant to be uplifting, it’s uplifting in the way One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was uplifting.

What I see in Room is an indictment of humanity; we are an unapologetically ugly species. I see relentless psychological torment, a young woman’s life pointlessly sent off the rails after she helped a man “and his dog” one fateful night. I see suffering not just in the moment but in the aftermath of a highly improbable escape from confinement.

Lenny Abrahamson devotes roughly half the running time inside a shed in the backyard of some nondescript home in suburban USA. This is where we first meet the characters, going about their day, interacting with each other and finding creative ways to pass the time. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) says hello to all of the inanimate objects he’s surrounded by upon awakening. Repressed anger be damned, ‘Ma’ (a never better Brie Larson) is going to make sure her son celebrates his fifth birthday properly.

Life is a certain way for these people. It doesn’t take much time or effort to realize it’s neither healthy nor normal. But after some psychological ingenuity on the part of Ma, life shall prove to be even more difficult on the outside. Indeed, there will be a transition, not just for the characters but for how we are able to invest in the performances. Given the novelist is also the screenwriter here, is it safe to assume the book is just as dull and arduous in the second half?

‘Room,’ as Jack calls it, is compelling in a morbid kind of way. Maybe all I need to say about this is Sean Bridgers. Given so little to do, the man effects a thoroughly despicable human being, an archetypal abuser who probably blames the economy for his being such a shit-bag. However he’s in the frame so infrequently he can’t take all the credit. In fact he’s pretty incidental compared to the weight of Larson and Tremblay’s performances.

If you’ve heard the word already, it is true: these are some breathtaking performances. Were it not for the depth of Larson’s commitment to pretending to be Tremblay’s mother, Room would be unwatchable. It is such a thoroughly depressing film, tracing the trajectory of that commitment as the pair are faced with an entirely new set of challenges. The real world is both exciting and maddening. Jack is the ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark room. At nine years old, the Canadian youngster is a revelation.

He informs the film’s deeply introspective narrative, professing his interpretation of the world around him. His descriptions give the film a jolt of inspiration; it’s better when Tremblay talks to us. When he’s not we’re like the psychologist who finds their first major breakthrough with a patient who’s generally been unwilling to talk about a past trauma. Those breakthroughs happen all too infrequently though, and we’re left with the difficult task of telling the patient that everything is going to be okay. We promise.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 4.36.39 PM

Recommendation: Room proves an acting showcase for its young stars. And honestly, it is a credit to those efforts that I have reacted, perhaps to a great many’s surprise, somewhat unfavorably. That a film inspires an emotional reaction at all is one of the highest praises you can give a film. While recognizing Room‘s brilliance, it’s still ultimately not something I’d ever care to sit through again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “There’s so much of ‘place’ in the world. There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter. So all the persons say ‘Hurry up! Let’s get going! Pick up the pace! Finish up now!’ Ma was in a hurry to go ‘boing’ up to Heaven, but she forgot me. Dumbo Ma! So the aliens threw her back down. CRASH! And broke her.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com