Room (2015)

2017 #37
Lenny Abrahamson | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, Canada & UK / English | 15 / R

Room

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay.





Inspired by the infamous Josef Fritzl case (but most decidedly not a a direct fictionalise thereof), Room is a drama about a horrific crime — at times it could even be said to be a crime thriller — but it’s not interested in dealing with the usual outcomes of such filmic narratives; namely, justice or revenge (or both). Rather, it has a goal both more realistic and humane: it’s about the victims, and the psychological toll the crime exerts upon them.

It’s told primarily from the point of view of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year-old boy whose entire world is Room, the small space he lives in with his mother, Ma (Brie Larson). What Jack doesn’t understand, but is quickly obvious to the viewer, is that they’re being held captive by ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers), who visits nightly for… well, you can guess what for. Ma has tried to keep Jack sheltered from the reality of their situation, not telling him properly about the outside world — until one day she hatches a plan for their escape.

Which possibly makes Room sound more action-packed than it is. There’s a sequence of edge-of-your-seat tension in the middle of the film, when Jack and Ma execute their plan, but otherwise this is a very grounded movie. Obviously the situation the characters have found themselves in is pretty extraordinary, but we know these things happen (Fritzl is, sadly, not the only example), and Room is committed to being a plausible exploration of such cases rather than an adrenaline-fuelled Movie version.

In Room, no one can hear you scream

This is a spoiler, really, but it’s also vital to understanding the film’s point and focus: that escape attempt, which occurs more-or-less exactly halfway through the movie, is a success. After seeing the existence Jack and Ma endured inside Room for the first half, the second is about how they adjust and cope to being in the real world after their ordeal. This half-time switch-up is the film’s primary strength. A comment I read online taps into why that’s the case: “At the beginning it was great. I thought it was gonna be a claustrophobic thriller/horror film following the line of others like Cube, Panic Room or even Das Boot… I got the feeling that if they would had escaped later on, the film would have been better.” This person is, of course, wrong, and their own comment demonstrates why. Sure, you could make this kind of story into “a claustrophobic thriller/horror film”, but that would be a genre B-movie and nowhere near the psychological realism (and, by extension, respect for real-life victims of such crimes) that Room is clearly interested in. I have to reluctantly agree that the first half is the more gripping and involving, but the second half — the having to cope with the psychological fallout once their ordeal is over, a very real but much less-seen aspect of crime — is where the meat and heart of Room lies. Or wants to.

The thing is, is it the case that the characters’ situation is inherently emotional, and therefore it’s pretty hard for a film about it to not elicit strong responses, rather than that this film in and of itself is doing anything particularly special? Some would give that an emphatic “yes” — criticism of Lenny Abrahamson’s plain direction abounds. I think that does him a disservice. This is not a showy movie, but nor should it be. Saying it’s no better than a cheap cable TV movie shows a lack of understanding for the quality of being understated, and the difference between that and thoughtless point-and-shoot quickie filmmaking. Indeed, the wiseness of the filmmakers in not giving the story an overly histrionic treatment is one of its biggest assets.

If you're happy and you know it stare blankly into space

Another is the performances. Larson is excellent, full of subtleties even when called on to enact more obvious Dramatic Moments. Ma runs the emotional gamut throughout the movie and Larson negotiates every changing facet with believability. Tremblay isn’t half bad either. I stop short of bigger praise for him because, frankly, I found his character pretty irritating at times, but that might be part of the point so maybe I’m being unfair. While those two are the natural focus, there are effective supporting turns from the likes of Joan Allen as Ma’s mom and Tom McCamus as her new partner, who gets one of the best scenes.

Despite these qualities, I was left wondering how much it had dug into Jack and Ma’s psychology, really? The decision to focus on the kid keeps us removed from Ma at some key points, giving us a snapshot of how she’s been affected rather than a detailed portrait. But we never fully get the psychology of Jack either. On the one hand that’s because, well, he’s only five years old; and on the other it’s because he’s lived his entire life in a situation we can only try to imagine — it’s hard to connect with his very unique worldview. That’s not to say the film fails entirely — there are moments, even whole scenes, where we’re able to access some level of understanding for what these characters have experienced — but as for the totality of it? Well, as I said, it’d be hard for the film to not generate sympathy just given the pure facts of the story it tells, but in terms of going further than that, I just felt there was something missing.

Hammock

Make no mistake, Room is a very good, very affecting film, powered by two strong lead performances, but at the end I felt there was more left to understand about these characters and their experiences.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Room is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Shivers (1975)

2015 #116
David Cronenberg | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | Canada / English | 18 / R

The first commercial (i.e. non-student) feature by horror maestro-to-be David Cronenberg, Shivers depicts the sexually-charged chaos that erupts after the spread of a man-made sexually-transmitted parasite in an isolated hyper-modern tower block.

The film contains all the requisite titillation of cheap schlock (nudity! gore!), but a handful of interesting, potential-laden ideas indicate the filmmaking promise that Cronenberg would later fulfil. Unfortunately, the execution here is hindered by dirt cheap production values and unfocused, undisciplined storytelling.

The most horrific part for fans is the mere mention of a sometimes-mooted remake, but I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad idea.

2 out of 5

Scanners (1981)

2015 #93
David Cronenberg | 103 mins | TV | 16:9 | Canada / English | 18 / R

If you’re versed in sci-fi/fantasy cinema, you’ve heard of Scanners even if you haven’t seen it: it’s the one with the (in)famous exploding head. That moment is distinctly less shocking for those of us coming to the film as a new viewer at this point: gore perpetuates genre cinema nowadays, so it’s less striking,* and the scene it’s in is quite obvious, so you know it’s coming. Fortunately, Scanners is so much more than one famous moment.

Social outcast Cameron (Steven Lack) can hear other people’s thoughts. When he’s apprehended by weapons firm ConSec, he discovers from scientist Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that he is far from alone. ConSec have been attempting to control these so-called scanners and weaponise them; one, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has other ideas, and is waging a counter war. Ruth wants to enlist Cameron to stop Revok. So begins what I suppose you might call a sci-fi espionage thriller, as Cameron finds his way into the underground scanner community and Revok’s spies in ConSec learn of their plans…

Scanners seems to have a mixed level of appreciation within writer-director David Cronenberg’s CV — even going no further than Wikipedia, you can find review quotes that swing between calling it “an especially important masterwork” and a movie that “might have been a Grand Guignol treat [but is marred by] essential foolishness”. Whether it’s a masterwork or not I wouldn’t care to say, but as a rough-round-the-edges genre thriller, I found it mightily entertaining.

As our hero, Lack isn’t much cop. If you were being kind you could write his oddness off as a product of Cameron’s reclusive lifestyle, but I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice. There are worse performances in the history of genre cinema though, and it’s not like his emotional journey or something is the core of the film. As if to make up for it, McGoohan is of course excellent, acting everyone else off the screen, while Ironside makes for an excellent villain, naturally. Some say that the final psychic battle, between Lack and Ironside, is underwhelming, but I thought it was excellently realised, a tense and effective struggle. Such brilliant effects and sequences are scattered throughout the film.

I do like a good genre movie, and Scanners manages to mash together a couple of my favourites — primarily, science fiction and espionage/undercover mystery-thrillers — in a way that, unless I’m forgetting something, we’ve seen surprisingly rarely. It’s not quite “a Bond film with telekinetics”, but if it were, that’s perhaps the only way I’d’ve found it more enjoyable.

4 out of 5

Scanners is on the Horror Channel tonight at 9pm, and again tomorrow night at 2:15am.

* Though, in isolation, bad enough that I changed my mind about using it as the header image for this review. ^

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.