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Oscars 2016: Best Director

This is one of the few legitimately interesting categories to watch. Will we have a back-to-back winner and make history in Iñárritu? Will we have a winner in the technical mastery of George Miller? Or could Adam McKay sneak in thanks to a last-minute boost? A Best Picture/Best Director split isn’t unprecedented, and lately has seemed the norm, and this is one category that will definitely come down to the wire.

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Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road Should Win

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant Will Win

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Power Rankings: Iñárritu-McCarthy-Miller-McKay-Abrahamson

I’m honestly at a loss for who could and should win this year, but we can rule out one director, Lenny Abrahamson for Room. While beautifully directed, the film is too small and Abrahamson too small a name to make an impact. He nabbed the spot from Golden Globe winner Ridley Scott, who just missed the cut and could’ve shaken up the five-way tie even more.

So let’s examine each director individually, starting with McKay for The Big Short, whose name has come up more and more as guild awards are revealed. McKay snagged a DGA nomination (essential in this category), but other than that nothing too substantial. It’s worth noting his omission from the Golden Globes, where the film did not score any wins, despite the Globes’ effect not being what it used to be.

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Moving on to Tom McCarthy, hot off the biggest disaster of his career (The Cobbler), he resurrects it with Spotlight, and since November the conversation has been focused on Spotlight‘s inevitable sweeps, some of which didn’t happen. McCarthy scored a DGA nomination, a Critics’ Choice nom, and the film also did well at the independent shows. McCarthy clearly isn’t out of the conversation, and the understated tone of Spotlight has earned him many fans. If we’re looking at a split, however, and Spotlight does win Best Picture, McCarthy might leave this one empty-handed. That seems most likely at this point, as when Best Director does split, it goes to the most technically impressive film, and Spotlight is not it this year. This last happened in 2014, when Cuarón took it home for Gravity while 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.

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Now to the two technical beasts, first George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is feeling like this year’s Gravity. While it’s shot at Best Picture is low, I’m anticipating a sweep in the craft and technical categories for Mad Max, including sound mixing & editing, film editing, makeup, and possibly production design and visual effects. The craft categories will be interesting ones to watch this year because of Mad Max but also because of The Revenant and The Martian, which will both put up a fight. Miller has scored in all the right places for this film, and he’s my personal winner for this category, which feels like a career victory lap for the acclaimed veteran.

But then there’s Iñárritu, previous winner for 2015’s Birdman and he will not go down without a fight for The Revenant. He won the Directors Guild Award earlier this month, which possibly could have cemented his victory. The last winner of the DGA who did not go on to win the Oscar was Ben Affleck in 2013 for Argo, and that one was an anomaly since he did not even score a nomination. DGA almost always signifies an Oscar victory, but if the voters are feeling Iñárritu fatigue, and for a film that has many vocal detractors, he could miss out.

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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Actress

Curse you, Charlotte Rampling (for a number of reasons). All of the women nominated in this category were nominated for films with one-word titles, but you couldn’t just star in “45” could you? I digress, although this may be the best category this year, full of outstanding actresses giving career-best performances. Three first-time nominees are going head-to-head with old Academy favorites, and the talent on display here is impeccable. Even though there may be a blatantly clear winner, like often happens with the Best Actress category, that doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods yet, as much can change in four weeks like we all know too well.

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Best Actress: The Nominees

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room – Will Win, Should Win

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Power Rankings: Larson-Ronan-Rampling-Blanchett-Lawrence

Brie Larson has this one in the bag, and she deserves it. One of my favorites from last year, Larson is tremendous in Room, exhibiting probably every emotional possible within a two-hour time span. I called this one a long time ago, as Brie Larson was announced to be playing Ma, a pitch-perfect choice for such a brilliant novel. Besides destroying everything in her path at festivals and the guild awards (I managed to catch a glimpse of her at the BFI London Film Festival), the AMPAS adorned the film, and it managed to squeeze into Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations, earning the big four.

So where does that leave the remaining nominees? Well, one could certainly make a case for the exquisite Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, another one of my favorites from 2015. While she may not have that scene like Larson, Rampling, and Lawrence, the young Irish actress has managed to snag a number of trophies, mostly from across the pond. Whatever her prospects, this definitely will not be the only nomination Ronan receives in her lifetime.

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Controversy aside, Charlotte Rampling is devastatingly compelling in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, which I finally managed to see over the weekend. She doesn’t have many lines, but when she does she delivers with such complexity. She is able to conjure up emotions from just the look on her face. Although it is a small film, Rampling definitely deserves her place. Unfortunately for Cate Blanchett, being a recent winner for Blue Jasmine in 2014 won’t do her any favors for her title role in Carol. I wasn’t as smitten by her performance as I was for her co-star Rooney Mara, but Blanchett does remarkable work (although when does she not?) Academy favorite Jennifer Lawrence takes the final spot for her role in Joy, the film’s only nomination. Her work with David O. Russell keeps paying dividends, and while she took home the Golden Globe in a traditionally weak category, she doesn’t hold a candle to the other ladies.

As for the snubs, there weren’t too many, as this is the strongest category this year. Many thought veterans Blythe Danner, Helen Mirren, or Maggie Smith would take a spot away from Lawrence, although history has shown the Academy loves to skew younger for this category. Wild card Amy Schumer would’ve been a breath of fresh air for her great work in Trainwreck, but the Academy doesn’t normally go for pure raunch. For my personal nomination, I give Bel Powley for The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The young newbie has years ahead of her, but like Rampling, is able to stir up emotions just by facial expression alone. The film may be too progressive for some voters (see the omission of Carol from the top prize), but Powley shines in the indie treasure, and I hope she takes home the Independent Spirit Award in a few weeks.

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Posted by on February 10, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Bridge of Spies

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With a name as consistent as Steven Spielberg, you can almost guarantee you’ll get a quality film. This time around, Bridge of Spies takes his established brand name and runs with it, and the result may be Spielberg’s best film this century (I know that’s a big euphemism, but roll with me here). Bridge of Spies may not be the most showy film, but it features excellent performances and has a great sense of place, with its easy-to-digest narrative themes never being too ostentatious nor tough to swallow.

Reuniting with Tom Hanks is a recipe for success it seems (the duo last were together in 2004’s The Terminal). Bridge of Spies is set in the 1950s, at the height of Cold War paranoia. The United States has captured a Soviet spy in Rudolph Abel, and they plan to negotiate a trade with the Russians for a downed bomber pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The stage is set for some brilliant legal thrills, and brought in to facilitate the exchange is lawyer James Donovan, who may have gotten more than he bargained for when the Soviets insist the trade take place in East Berlin.

The script is from Matt Charman and additional polish from Joel & Ethan Coen. The film plays like a legal thriller initially, with Donovan being pushed into this role, and facing opposition from everybody on the homefront. Donovan is strong-willed, he’s a patriot in the most traditional sense of the word. He knows that everybody, including his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) is against him and wants to see Abel executed, but Donovan knows better. He wants equal justice for Abel, who may or may not be a spy. He gets to know him, but not too much to be too close to the case. Abel calls him ‘Stoykiy muzhik’ which translates to ‘standing man’ and this is a brilliant theme for Donovan who simply won’t stand down when facing opposition from all sides.

When the action moves to East Berlin, it’s here where Spielberg’s craft kicks into overdrive and we get some brilliant work. A monstrous tracking shot of a boy on a bicycle riding through East Berlin, right where the wall is being constructed, is a harrowing introduction to the country at this time. As he weaves in between families being torn apart and a small gap in the wall still allowing passage, we realize that this won’t be the same film we saw in the first half. When the exchange finally takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, it feels like the culmination of hard work but also perseverance, that same perseverance that Abel told Donovan that he possessed. While I wish the film had ended right then and there, we get a few more endings, which might be the film’s only misstep. We know that Donovan is a hero back home, we don’t need to overplay it. While the final scenes are good and fine, we never feel challenged, and Spielberg’s desire to seal it with a kiss and end with the most obtrusive image of kids playing in Brooklyn climbing over a fence (really??) is a bit heavy-handed, even for what’s supposed to be an adult-drama.

Hanks, America’s everyman, gives Donovan a few more shades than you might expect. Yeah, he’s a ‘boy scout’ who believes in the power of the legal system, but he never comes across as cartoony. We like to believe that all citizens would be like Donovan, but we know that’s not the case. Donovan may not represent a specific individual, but rather an ideal one. It harkens back to classic Hollywood filmmaking, when a film has a lot to say but doesn’t give it to you in easy spoonfuls. AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called it “an ode to holding fast to moral principles, geopolitics be damned.” Hanks remains persistent but also reluctant, and he knows getting a fair trade won’t be easy when the Germans capture another American young man studying in Berlin. It’s not his best role, but it’s another consistent notch in Hanks’s revered filmography of playing complex American heroes. Apart from the good old Spielberg sap near the end of the film, Donovan is one of the best protagonists of the year.

Additionally we get a great supporting role from Mark Rylance, who’s never had a chance to play a character like Rudolph Abel before. The first five minutes of the film introduce us to Abel, who seems to be living such a normal life, that is until we see him retrieve a dead drop from a park bench that leads up to his capture. Abel isn’t a bad man, but he’s a good Soviet, and the xenophobia of the Cold War took over and blinded everybody at this time. Rylance gives Abel the stoic, stern complexion but also a tragic personality. The scenes in the jail between Abel and his lawyer Donovan are shot with sentimentality. Abel remains seated but Donovan is up and about, the white light shining in from a bright window, illuminating the similarities between these two men.

So what Bridge of Spies leaves us with is one of the best crafted films of the year. Everyone works in tandem, the screenplay bringing to life the characters who are complemented by the production, and it alls sings. Cinematographer Janusz Kamniski, Spielberg’s ride or die, gives Bridge of Spies the confidence of a trumpet in harmony with the rest of the orchestra. He keeps the camera inward, not outward, and this highlights Bridge of Spies most pivotal scenes where we must look inward and ask much of ourselves. It’s not a super complex film, and I think this would be a good one for families to enjoy together, as there are bits of humor sprinkled in with Donovan being so out of his element in Germany. But a straightforward story doesn’t mean straightforward direction, and Spielberg gives Bridge of Spies the same flair he gave 2012’s Lincoln, and we’re left with a sweeping account of a moment of the United States frozen in time.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Carol

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Todd Haynes’s Carol is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen. It’s a film that understands the passion and work that goes into falling in love, including all of the messy complications along the way. With beautiful production design that complements the fiery story, and two fine actresses giving some of the most nuanced performances this year, Carol is a delight for both the heart and the eyes.

When Therese first meets Carol in the department store, sparks don’t immediately fly, but you can see the curiosity in both of their eyes as they contemplate this new crush. The brilliance of Carol lies in the film’s ability to say so much about a forbidden romance in 1950s New York all while being a fairly straightforward film plot wise. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese (Rooney Mara) is looking for something more in her life than her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy). The stage is set for the two to meet and when they do, it’s pure magic.

As the two women get to know and each other and learn more about one another, the performances beautifully complement the tone. Going from a playful first meet, to more flirtatious dates, to a trip cross-country where they finally acknowledge their feelings for one another; each stage in their romance is more intense than the next, as each lover considers their stake in the relationship as well as the implications it might have.

This is easily a career best for the young Rooney Mara, who last crushed it on-screen in 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s such a refined performer, and she brings Therese’s complexities to life with every calculated look, every nuanced move of her fingers. Notice how her poise changes depending on whom she is with. With Richard she can be more relaxed and contentious when she is upset. But with Carol she regresses into a schoolgirl, her camera being her window into this woman’s life. It’s a meticulous performance that should garner attention next spring.

As for Blanchett, what a top-notch performance she gives, even this late into her excellent filmography. Carol’s the one who initiates the relationship, who gets the ball rolling. Struggling with a nasty custody case over her daughter Rindy and a homophobic husband, Carol carries herself as if everything is fine. She has the aura of a sensual New York socialite but her eyes and face tell a different story. When she “accidentally” leaves her gloves at Therese’s store, she invites her into her world and Therese never looks back.

Carol additionally might have the best production of any film this year. Cinematography, costume design, and production design all complement each other beautifully, and never feel like afterthoughts. It’s so strong that Haynes can evoke such strong emotions and feelings simply through the use of color (simply look at the breathtaking poster above). In this case, red represents Carol herself, and I found myself noticing this subtle and delicate use of color many times, and it’s genius. Other colors make an impression as well, including when Therese is painting her home with her reporter friend. The craftsmanship present here is simply remarkable, with Haynes opting for close-up shots in an intimate car ride as well as more wide shots of New York City. Additionally, the score from Carter Burwell is gorgeous and intimate, with small scale chord progression lying beneath the romance.

Carol’s forbidden romance is one of desire, but also one of escape and curiosity. The film posits the question “how would your life be different if you hadn’t met this one person?” and the film explores many themes regarding sexuality and feminism in the 1950s. But Carol is also a masterpiece of production and performance, with two knockout lead performances that play off each other, creating an irresistible chemistry that only someone like Haynes could conjure up.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Steve Jobs

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It’s not hard to see why Steve Jobs himself makes such an interesting subject. I don’t need to reiterate the impact he had on society, but our inherent curiosity in seeing how men like him function has resulted in works both good and bad that attempt to get a grip on the Apple legend. Danny Boyle’s is the latest to attempt to understand the man, and it’s a resounding win. Steve Jobs is more than a career best for everyone involved, t’s a creative epiphany, a rare film of both ambition and nuance. I hate using words like ‘masterpiece’ on this blog, but for Steve Jobs I’ll make an exception.

The film is based on the 2011 biography of the same name, published just shortly after Jobs’s death. That massive tome that everyone’s mother was reading is a difficult one to trim down, but Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have made it work. Creative and strategic cuts had to be made in order to present a cohesive film, one that preserves Jobs’s image but also functions as an entertaining movie.

The entire affair is presented like a three-act play, beginning in 1984 with the launch of the Apple Macintosh and ending in 1998 with the launch of the iMac. In between we see Jobs’s firing and rehiring from Apple, as well as his work on the NeXT Computer in 1988. On top of the failure of the Macintosh and the NeXT, Jobs also struggles with a paternity case, as he claims his former girlfriend Chrisann’s daughter Lisa is not his own.

This three-act structure is risky, and would not simply work in any other director’s hands. Danny Boyle’s direction elevates the production, making something that could come across as repetitive instead come across as novel. It’s nimble, quick on its feet, with signature Sorkin dialogue to boot.

Recurring characters appear in each of the three “vignettes,” including Jobs’s former coworker Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who perhaps has the best lines as he berates Jobs for failing to give their Apple II team any recognition. He jabs at Jobs continuously, asking him “what do you do?” with lines speaking of their rivalry but also mutual respect for each other. In a similar vein, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple at the time, is featured in the best climactic scenes alongside Jobs. Daniels does incredible work, and the two bicker about if Jobs was actually fired, the truth of which we see in intermittent flashbacks. It’s all filmed with gusto, the score building and building until the tension can be felt, until it all comes crashing down like dominoes. The filmmaking is electric, my palms were sweating all throughout.

The heart and soul of the film however, belongs to Jobs’s daughter Lisa. She’s symbolic for everything Jobs believes in, acting as a literal representation of his success. When the paternity case is finally settled and he finally accepts that she is his daughter, it’s a turning point for both Jobs and the company. The film employs a similar device in Apple’s creations, with the three impactful moments in Jobs’s life obviously not chosen at random. Nothing is constant in Jobs’s life, except his marketing assistant Joanna, played by Kate Winslet in one of her best roles to date. More than just a behind-the-scenes girl, Joanna is Jobs’s confidant, probably the only person who understands him, and even then she struggles with his abrasive personality.

I haven’t yet touched on Fassbender’s performance, and that’s because it’s everything you’d expect it to be. He may not look the part like Ashton Kutcher did in 2013’s astronomically bad Jobs, but Fassbender delivers a performance so rigid, so rock solid, that you’ll feel tightened by his grip just like the supporting characters in his life did. When he gets mad, he gets mad, and he can deliver a burn unlike anybody else. Jobs is the same person with Joanna as he is with Lisa and Chrisann, he doesn’t make compromises. Fassbender matches Jobs’s personality to a T, nailing the reflective scenes but also the showy ones. It’s one of the best performances of the year.

I’ve seen comparisons of Steve Jobs with last year’s Oscar winner Birdman, and while I think those comparisons are completely just (both films are backstage dramas with kinetic filmmaking and troubled leads), I think the filmmaking here matches Jobs’s personality better than it did Riggan’s. Symbolism is all over in Steve Jobs, but it’s never overt, with unexpected lines of dialogue stemming from unexpected places. These unorthodox storytelling strategies allow the what-might-be-familiar story to overcome obstacles that so many other biopics struggle to surpass. Jobs’s legacy is fully in tact here, and we couldn’t have gotten a better film from a more talented team of artists – it’s a triumph.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Brooklyn

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Brooklyn is a beauty. It’s as classical as they come, telling the story of a young Irish immigrant torn between two worlds, but it gets remarkably complex despite seeming like yet another romantic drama. Bolstered by beautiful production design and a perfect cast, Brooklyn is one of the year’s best.

The film is all about our cultural identity, and for Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), hers has been shaped primarily by Ireland. When a chance at a job in an upscale department store in New York arises, Ellis jumps at the opportunity, leaving behind her family and friends in search of something new in 1950s Brooklyn. She shacks up in a boarding house for girls headed by the ostentatious yet hospitable Miss Kehoe (Julie Walters, a standout), and must adjust to life in the United States. Meeting Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) sets the sparks flying for a romance, as she quickly falls for him, but Ellis soon finds herself immediately drawn back to Ireland after a series of events.

Ellis is a dreamer, and it shows. Actress Saoirse Ronan is no stranger to complex roles like these, and she brings the practicality yet wide-eyed enthusiasm to Ellis. Initially reserved, she quickly grows to love the city of New York, but Ireland always remains a part of her. She’s ambitious, with dreams of becoming a bookkeeper, yet not closed off to new experiences. Ronan (who holds dual citizenship in Ireland and the U.S.) has found her muse in Ellis, and this is a performance we’ll be hearing much about this winter, I’m sure of it.

This dichotomy of cultures gives Brooklyn its central conflict, and screenwriter Nick Hornby manifests this in Ellis’s two admirers, Tony, whom she marries before returning to Ireland, and Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who pines for her affection back in her homeland. She doesn’t dislike Jim, but her admiration for the big city and her hatred for small town gossip piles on the pressure, and she finds herself at a crossroads. Her mother (Jane Brennan) isn’t helping either, as Ellis must hide her marriage to Tony from her old friends and family out of fear that they might think she has departed from her Irish identity.

Brooklyn is brilliant at getting at how where we come from shapes who we are, but it doesn’t trap us forever. The themes of immigration are explored in two excellent scenes with Ellis aboard the ferry to New York – just look at how much she’s changed from her first trip out of her country. Upon returning, she helps another young girl who reminds her of herself. The development here is outstanding, and the writers made great use of the run time. The film also surprisingly possesses a Woody Allen sense of playfulness, with the humorous beats and momentary lapses stemming primarily from cultural divisions. What seems like a straightforward romantic drama has quite a few jokes up its sleeve, and this is a refreshing pleasure.

Brooklyn goes the extra mile in making not only a well-written piece of escapism, as it’s easy on the eyes as well. Meticulous attention to detail is present in the costume and production design, and they all reflect how Ellis has changed in this impressionable period of young adulthood. The film makes great use of colour, especially in Ellis’s various outfits. Normally these aren’t things I notice in films because little thought has been given or they fail to stand out, but Brooklyn pulls out all stops to make you feel invested in the story with this added emphasis on production. Cinematography from Yves Belanger makes it clear that this is Ellis’s tale and Ellis’s alone, and the camera lingers on her for extended periods, highlight the most significant moments in Ellis’s life. The production is beautiful, drawing you in with the dreary claustrophobic streets of Ireland and contrasting with the open air of Brooklyn, and the score from Michael Brook hits all the right notes.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Room

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Room is a harrowing thriller, but not in the traditional sense of the word. It deals with a dark subject matter and the first half of the film can be quite disturbing. Yet director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) has adapted the best-selling novel with grace and grandeur. Here is a film so artistically unique and deviant, chock full of genuine emotion thanks to two outstanding performances, that isn’t afraid to take risks and surprise at every turn.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room introduces us to Ma and Jack, a mother and son held captive in a garden shed. As we learn more about their captivity, their world becomes clearer and clearer to us. They live by a routine, have names for every object in room, and Ma must be careful as her son grows older and more curious.

The film is structured into two halves, and by now it’s no spoiler that the second half deals with their readjustment into the outside world, and Jack’s first time outside of room. The film is thematically complex, yet never overwhelming. At its core it’s about motherhood, but Jack’s unique upbringing complicates things.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is no stranger to the strange, and with Room he’s made a masterpiece of filmmaking. The entire idea of ‘room,’ the abstract concept of space, is ever-present in the production. In their bubble of room, Ma and Jack are restricted, as evident by Abrahamson’s close angles and tight shots. The small space allows for high concept filmmaking, and when they get out of room, it only gets better, with a new color palette and experimental camera angles through Jack’s eyes. The entire film is seen through the eyes of this child, and it’s genius. What I loved about the book was its focus on Jack and how he adjusts to seeing this new world for the first time, and the movie never loses sight of that.

I wrote about the pressure placed on child actors in my review for the incredible Beasts of No Nation, and Jacob Tremblay fits like a glove. Like Abraham Attah, he isn’t a child actor, but an actor who just happens to be of a younger age. His wide eyes and expressive thoughts are very believable, and when he sees the outside world for the first time, it’s a thing of beauty. Tremblay has brilliant chemistry with Brie Larson, and for one second I never doubted her devotion to him. As Ma faces frustrating upon leaving room, from her parents, doctors, and the media, she never forgets her son Jack, and always puts his wellbeing first. Larson taps into this character, one that undergoes a stunning transformation as she basically lost seven years of her life being locked up. Her performance will blow you away.

The best actors are the ones able to transport you into their characters’ own universes, no matter how isolated from society they happen to be. Larson, Tremblay, and Joan Allen all have a tremendous range of emotional ability and are able to sell you on their story not just for two hours, but for an entire lifetime. With Room, Abrahamson goes the extra mile with his direction, and director of photography Danny Cohen keeps all eyes on Jack. The film asks us to examine how we view the world and how this viewpoint is shaped by our nurtured upbringing. The result is a breathtaking experience brought to life, one you won’t soon forget.

 

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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