Friday, November 20, 2015

Room is an indescribably powerful story of love and an unbreakable bond

Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack spend 24 hours of every day inside a small space. Most people would call it a room, but they refer to it as Room. It has been Jack’s entire world and the name Room with a capital letter R emphasizes this.

As the movie opens, we see them doing what is most likely a daily routine. They have breakfast together at the table, brush their teeth and do exercises in the form of short sprints and push-ups. This day is special, however, because as Jack excitedly tells Ma, “I’m five.” To celebrate, Ma let’s Jack know they will make a birthday cake today. After cracking eggs, adding butter and all the necessary ingredients, they remove the cake from the oven and sit down to eat. Jack is immediately disappointed when he learns there are no birthday candles inside Room.

He angrily tells Ma she should ask Nick for candles for their Sunday treat. She says in a tone bot exasperated and with tempered frustration that she has to ask for things they need. Parents often say their children are their whole world and for Ma, whose real name we learn is Joy, this is entirely true. She was abducted seven years ago and has been inside Room ever since, and for the past five years has raised Jack, her son with her abductor whom she calls Nick and who brings her Sunday treats along with food and other items. When Ma gives Jack that exasperated tone, it is just one of many moments her strength is astonishing. She remembers what it’s like to have a life and she knows what the outside world holds. Jack, being born in captivity, has the luxury of believing Room is everything. He believes all the items they receive from Nick are procured through magic and travel through the TV. When a mouse scurries through a tiny hole in the wall and is shooed away through the same spot by Ma, Jack has no concept of the fact it has merely gone back outside. Ma has created a world entirely for them inside this small, drab space and the fact the is able to provide a happy childhood for her son while withholding from him the incalculable despondency she must feel at times is almost as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

Nick is given little screen time and this serves the story well. We see he spends time with Ma almost every night, but the screenplay, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel, is not interested in exploitation. This isn’t a story of horror and mistreatment. This is a story of strength, resilience, a mother’s love of her son and the unbreakable bond they form.

Through some ingenuity and luck, they finally make their escape and Ma re-enters the world and Jack enters for the first time. At first, Joy is elated and there are many exciting moments for the two, such as when Jack asks if they can get something for their Sunday treat and is told by his mom, “There will be so many treats and not just on Sundays!”

Assimilating back into a regular life is difficult and puts a strain on both herself and her parents, as Joy worries about how Jack is progressing. There are wrenching moments as the effect of Joy’s absence becomes clearer and stress is released through fits of anger. Yet there is a tremendous amount of joy and relief. Joy smiles as she looks out the window and for the first time watches Jack play ball with a boy his age who is his friend and the excitement and happiness on Jack’s face when he gets to meet the family dog (he had an imaginary dog named Lucky in Room) is so endearing one can only cry.

The performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack are both masterful and more believable than anything else this year or in recent memory. Room is an emotional gut-punch of a movie and one of the most remarkable works of the past five years.

Roger Ebert said, “Art is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.” Room is a masterpiece.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bond battles both Blofeld and comparison critics in the thrilling Spectre

Spectre is the 24th James Bond film and reviews are as mixed as a Vodka martini. Almost none of the reviews find fault with the film on any technical level, the actors are all praised (length of screen time for them notwithstanding) and everyone agrees the action sequences are satisfying. Why then is this film being treated as if it’s Octopussy?

It doesn’t take an MI6 security clearance to discover the truth, which is that Spectre is suffering from a syndrome plaguing several franchises and many of the negative reviews aren’t written by Bond fans. Many of these critics that aren’t Bond fans also gave glowing reviews to Skyfall and Casino Royale, so it should stand to reason that their inherent disinclination to enjoy any Bond film doesn’t matter as long as it’s a solid piece of filmmaking. This is flawed reasoning and this is when the franchise-plaguing inconsistencies in criticism enters the (ahem) picture.

Daniel Craig’s four Bond adventures have been treated with a swinging pendulum of good and bad reviews. He was given his double-0 status in Casino Royale, a rare movie that almost everyone at least enjoys. It doesn’t matter if someone’s seen every Bond movie or if it’s their first; whether their first theatrical Bond viewing was of a Sean Connery film or a Pierce Brosnan film or if Casino Royale is the first time they’ve seen the sartorially gifted spy sip a martini. Casino Royale is a movie everyone is dazzled by. It’s a great movie, not just a great James Bond movie.

Following what was undoubtedly the series’ highest peak since 1964’s Goldfinger, anticipation was high for the next installment. “Fans”, critics and audiences didn’t give an inch. 2008’s Quantum of Solace is one of the most derided films in the series’ 53-year history. By all accounts, Quantum is a solid Bond entry. Yet rather than review it as a standalone film, most people went straight to calling it terrible because it wasn’t as good as Casino Royale. Not a single review states that is the reason, but this is because it’s a sub-conscious thought process.

This is a process seen when The Lost World: Jurassic Park received negative reviews because it didn’t live up to Jurassic Park. How could anything? It also occurred notably when 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was considered a massive disappointment. Had Rises followed Batman Begins, people would have lauded it as a rousing entertainment and a social commentary, but because it was the follow-up to The Dark Knight, one of the most critically acclaimed superhero films of all time and the reason the Oscars now nominate between five and 10 films for Best Picture, it was loathed.

Skyfall, like Casino Royale, received rave reviews and is also considered one of the best in the series. Skyfall is undoubtedly a great film on its own, but the fact if followed Quantum greatly helped its reception. It is also worth noting that Casino Royale came four years after Die Another Day, which many consider to be the series’ nadir.

Spectre has created derision and critics seem to have their own license to kill when it comes to their reviews of it, but these criticisms are clearly from reviewers not fond of or not familiar with the canon.

One of the most common critiques of Spectre is the way it connects itself to the events of the three previous films. As Devon Faraci pointed out this is accomplished by having Christoph Waltz’s villain say he was responsible for the events. “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.” We learn that Casino Royale’s LeChiffre, Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Greene and Skyfall’s Silva were all underlings in Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s global network of Spectre.  The intricacies of how these previous criminal foes were connected could be fleshed out as the premise of an entire film, but the fact that they are revealed through a few sentences and some investigative work by Q Branch accomplishes the task just fine.

Casino Royale demonstrated that LeChiffre was a low-level player in a major organization. This is why M repeatedly counseled Bond on the merits of viewing “The Big Picture” instead of simply killing the enemy right in front of him. This is a lesson she continued to try to teach him in Quantum by saying, “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be much appreciated.” It is for this reason that Bond’s objective in Casino Royale was to bankrupt LeChiffre at the poker table, so that due to the loss of his money he would be sought out be his overlords and have to seek asylum. The British government would then offer this asylum in exchange for intel on his organization. 

Quantum opens with Bond bringing Mr. White, one of LeChiffre’s superiors (and the man who killed LeChiffre to prevent him from divulging secrets) to an interrogation room. He is the next link in the organization and the key to uncovering the power structure. White escapes and Bond eventually comes face to face with Dominic Greene, the movie’s main villain.

Skyfall did not contain any direct links to the Casino Royale and instead focused on a storyline involving a former British agent named Silva who was bent on revenge for what he viewed as a betrayal by M. Yet there is nothing in this film to prove Silva couldn’t have also been part of an organization. As we learned from M, he has a history of working on the side for other teams and it’s possible his revenge plan was merely an extracurricular activity.

In Spectre, Mr. White returns to the storyline and after learning intel from him Bond finally meets with the most iconic Bond villain of them all; Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He is, as Carrie Mathison would put it, “the head of the snake” and he gleefully boasts to Bond that he was in charge the whole time. This should not be construed as inconsistent. Casino Royale rebooted the series and the character. While watching the 21st James Bond film and seeing Daniel Craig’s Bond go on his first assignment as a double-O agent, nobody complained, “But he was a double-O agent in the last 20 films! This isn’t right at all!”

Bond films can be linked through characters and events, but as far back as the late 1960’s continuity has had a different definition than in other series. You Only Live Twice featured Sean Connery as 007 and Donald Pleasence as the first actor to play Blofeld without his face obscured.  Blofeld escaped and in the next film, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,   Bond was now played by George Lazenby and Blofeld by Telly Savalas. In the film, Bond impersonates a member of the heraldry in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s top-secret clinic. Blofeld is attempting to establish his claim as the rightful heir to a count position in an esteemed lineage and Bond is ostensibly working with him to research this. The ruse works until Bond gives some incorrect information, causing Blofeld to be suspicious of his identity. Blofeld discovers the truth and while brandishing Bond’s glasses which were part of his disguise, says “It will take more than a few props to turn 007 into a herald.” Blofeld’s suspicions, he says, were also aroused Bond began seducing several of the female patients at the clinic. The use of two different actors here was coincidental and keeps the fact that while having spent time face to face with Bond, Blofeld doesn’t recognize him out of the audience’s mind. The glasses comment is meant as an insult from Blofeld and not meant to suggest the frames were the reason Bond stayed hidden. After all, it wasn’t as if Blofeld was only suspicious once they were removed. The reason this supposed inconsistency isn’t an issue is because it’s not a true inconsistency.

The reason for this is that in the world of Bond, not the cinematic one the audience views, but in Bond’s actual life, the events of You Only Live Twice didn’t happen. Bond movies, while sometimes connected with story threads like characters such as Mr. White, are independent entries and unrelated to the others. Part of the reason for this is that when the movies started there was already a wealth of Ian Fleming novels to use as source material and these were adapted out of sequence. The movie versions of You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service came in reverse chronological order compared to their literary counterparts.

It’s fair if not every critic is a fan of the James Bond canon. In the 1960’s the Bond films created a new take on the secret agent genre and influenced countless films and TV shoes (not to mention men’s fashion and drink choices), but nobody in the world of film criticism said it was art in the form of the contemporary French New Wave. This is not a criticism of the series, but a compliment. The Bond films exist in their own realm of the movie world. Bond is a genre all its own.

It is a longstanding, popcorn, escapist entertainment that has been a staple of moviegoing for more than half a century. At this point, the series has been recycling and reusing locations and action sequences, but again, this isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment. It’s a compliment to the series’ importance to our lives and to the fact that it is so beloved. It’s why when before getting to see Spectre, just the sight of a production still featuring Bond in a suit, holding a gun with a gorgeous female in a designer dress by his side running from an exploding lair, audiences know they’re going to get exactly what they want. It’s why when the early production photos of Spectre were released, the sight of Craig on an Austrian ski slope quickened the pulse of fans who weren’t around or were too young when Lazenby, Moore and Brosnan each had snowbound adventures. Now it’s their Bond’s turn to be chased down a mountain! Connery is the only Bond to never hit the slopes.

Bond is to many a sign of the Holiday season. Almost every Bond film was released in November or December and therefore, they are as comforting as a hot chocolate or an eggnog latte. In the dead of winter, audiences can count on an exciting adventure in amazing locales. They can admire pressed, perfectly tailored suits and vicariously experience the luxury of five-star hotels and exquisite meals in Michelin-star caliber restaurants. Bond films are event movies and almost everyone has a story and memory of seeing one with special family, friends or loved ones. Spectre is a great Bond film, but is also important because it satisfies the need for audiences to form lasting memories and have an amazing escape. If this sounds a little too mushy, remember it was Daniel Craig who said, “People feel very strongly about James Bond … and that’s absolutely cool.”


Saturday, October 31, 2015

She's a role model, a Millenial and a work in progress

Noah Baumbach has carved a unique niche for himself as a maker of fictional movies that double as socio-anthropological studies. If his films were shot on a documentary quality film stock or low-quality digital format and stripped of the scenes more common in feature films, they could easily be shown to other cultures as documentations of people of a certain age, place and time.

In the case of his latest, the delightful Mistress America, the place and time is modern NYC and the subjects of his study are 20-somethings and one very entertaining 30-something. Tracy (Lola Kirke) attends college and when her mother, who is soon to be married, suggests she reach out to her future stepsister, she calls Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and the night the two spend on the town makes an impression on Tracy. Tracy is in awe of Brooke’s lifestyle. She is enlivened ay her enthusiasm and the passion flowing from her. She begins to reflect this. Tracy also starts writing a short story featuring a thinly veiled version of Brooke in hopes of having it published in a campus literary magazine, thereby gaining acceptance to a revered society of writers.

Tracy is not exploiting or taking advantage of Brooke and her relationship the two have. The story is out of genuine fascination. Brooke’s goal of opening a restaurant is especially exciting to Tracy and is of significant detail in the story. As enamored as Tracy is, it’s not long before she realizes Brooke’s image as a successful, cosmopolitan woman is more of a projection of who she wants to be than who she is. As the two spend more time together, Baumbach presents some of the anthropological elements through observing his subjects. These observations come in the form of hilarious lines and character traits. After Tracy says something Brooke finds insightful, Brooke says she’s going to shorten it, punch it up and turn it into a tweet. In another exchange, Brooke asks Tracy to make coffee in the apartment and after Tracy says she doesn’t know how, Brooke harshly tells her not to be so incompetent, and that if she spent a matter of seconds with the coffeemaker, she would know how.  That comment is amusing and telling because it highlights a dichotomy in Brooke. Brooke is ambitious, but she’s not quite diligent enough to follow through on her ideas.
The comment also is one of Baumbach’s observations of millennials who are often viewed by older generations as being pampered and spoiled. There may be some truth to this but Brooke seems to show that some may be aware of this and dislike it in themselves, projecting it onto others. Millennials aren’t the only group examined by Baumbach’s script. In one of the film’s longest sequences in a single setting, Brooke, Tracy and some acquaintances visit a potential investor in Brooke’s restaurant to lobby for startup capital. The home is a spacious, modern residence in an upscale area. Tracy comments on how beautiful it is and says “When you live in the suburbs you have to really like being in your house.”

Like Lena Dunham, who writes about similar disaffected millennials on “Girls”, Baumbach’s treatment of his protagonists is endearing and critical. Brooke may be ambitious, but she still has a lot of improvements to make before her goals can become reality.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Age is just a number

Nostalgia can be a pleasant activity because it allows us to revisit some of our favorite experiences and memories. When it veers into maudlin territory, it can become a burden. The Age of Adaline is about a woman who never has the luxury of engaging in pleasant nostalgia before revisiting the present and travelling forward in life’s journey. Adaline Bowman hasn’t aged since she was 29 years old due to a freak accident and subsequent jolt of electricity stopping time, but only for her, in its tracks. Adaline is played by Blake Lively, who for the first time is given a movie to carry herself and she does so with a great deal of emotion. When we first she Adaline appears friendly and smiles frequently, but there is a sense of underlying sadness. She conceals the heartbreak of never having a shared life and future with someone and therefore leaving behind her loved ones along the way. Adaline relocates every decade with a new identity in order to avoid the suspicions of anyone who might find her lack of aging odd. Because of this, she even spends far less time with her naturally aging daughter played by Ellen Burstyn. If this seems like heavy material, it’s because it is. The Age of Adaline is unique and brave in the way it views immortality as a curse rather than a blessing. Yet, the screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz explores these challenges of timeless aging in a thoughtful way that avoids melodrama. This film is a pleasure from start to finish. A lesser story would have left certain elements unexplored, but Adaline examines the details of how someone would need to keep their secret, provide for themselves and how this life affects them with great intelligence. In an early scene Adaline collects her false driver’s license and passport from a young man and asks why he does this. She explains forgery is a felony, he is a smart man and she doesn’t like to see talent wasted. This is a brief exchange, but one of the most insightful in the script as it shows Adaline’s constant awareness of time and her sadness that she has not been able to live hers as fully as she’d like and doesn’t want the same fate for others. Adaline hasn’t wasted her life and she’s used her time to become fluent in several languages and absorb a rich variety of culture, art and literature. It’s through her work as an archivist that she meets Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a handsome philanthropist. She is reluctant to start a relationship but goes on a couple dates. The San Francisco setting, the cinematography and directing by David Lanzenberg and directing by Lee Toland Krieger and the chemistry between the two leads make this romance and movie a visual delight as well as an emotional one. Adaline eventually goes with Ellis to meet with his parents and when Ellis’ dad William, played by Harrison Ford, sees Adaline (who now goes by the alias Jenny), he practically stops in his tracks. He tells her she looks exactly like an old friend of his. When William was 26, he met Adaline while they were both studying in London. The two spent five memorable weeks together and now more than forty years later are standing face to face. Both actors do impressive work here. Lively has to convey the look of someone who is masking the surprise of seeing him again while keeping up the ruse that she is Adaline’s daughter, which is the most logical response to her appearance. For Lively to show no surprise or emotion would have been unconvincing and too much would have been suspicious, but she finds exactly the right amount and her eyes speak volumes. Ford also must walk an emotional tightrope here and there’s a moment when Adaline says her mother has passed away. Ford does a subtle move in which his body is very slightly lowered under the weight of the news, his face briefly gives in to anguish then conceals it to avoid hurting the feelings of his wife. It’s some of his finest work and these two being reunited after so long is the emotional core of the film. The Age of Adaline has other strengths including the muted way Adaline shows her sophistication and wisdom beyond her 29-year-old appearance, but the greatest strength is this film is simply a joy.