Room (2015) (R)

This review contains SPOILERS!
Seriously, I can't think of a way of talking about this movie without spoiling everything in it, you are so warned.
Room by Emma Donoghue is a book that means a great deal to me. It's one of my favorites and one that I frequently say "changed my life" not in some emotional sense, but in the aspect of writing. Donoghue's book is sensational in this regard, she manages to tell a story from the point of view of a five year old boy without being insincere or cheesy. It's also a book that seems impossible to turn into a movie.
"Room" is a movie that would be impossible to make outside of its indie setting. This is not a blockbuster film nor is it something destined for a popular audience. This is a critic's darling, film snob's film. The reason I say this is that you can find fault with the movie...but only with its premise and not with its execution. Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay) should be to blame if the movie is unsuccessful. But it's not, so she's off the hook.
The movie concerns two spaces: inside and outside of the titular space of "room". Jack (Jacob Tremblay) just turned five and his mother (Brie Larson) decides to bake him a cake for the occasion. They get all the ingredients and spend time whisking, stirring, baking, and then cleaning. Yet when it's time to dig in, Jack is upset because there are no candles like the TV people have.
I don't know how this scene would play out to those who hadn't read the book. For me, I knew the ending and thus, was not too surprised when everything panned out almost exactly like it did in the book. The translation from novel to movie here is quite stellar, but that's beside the point. This scene shows that something is off kilter. Questions would start to arise: Why are they living in such a small room? Why can't they get access to the outside world? etc.
For me, I knew the ending, but that didn't mean that somehow Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson (of indie fame) create a tightly focused quasi-thriller that had everyone sobbing on the edge of their seat. I know it sounds weird, but the movie's emotional are so visceral and its execution is so perfect that this seems like the only appropriate reaction.
It becomes clear that the mother soon has to explain to her son that they are not present on their own accord. She was kidnapped and has been held prisoner for years. Jack, on the other hand, was born into the system. He knows nothing besides Room, nothing other than these walls. He thinks the entire world is in that single shed.
But the mother (whose name is used, but appears in the credits as "Ma") cannot function within these conditions and so devises many schemes to escape.
What "Room" does so well is present a situation in which the only possible action seems like the one that will forever damn the characters. Jack will not be the same on the outside and the mother will have to live with the pressure of her new life and the fact that she risked her child. It's kind of a paradox that forms, in the sense that this single action of wishing to escape will not only change the narrative of the movie, but also the sense of emotion that was built up in the first half.
"Room" has to reinvent itself in the second half, wiping the slate clean and beginning again. Jack has to learn about simple things like showers and legos while the mother has to balance her private and increasingly public life with her new freedom.
"Room" is an intense punch to the gut. Its emotions are bare and stressful. I have never been in a theater where an audience responded to a move like this, it was almost unbelievable the reaction of the movie.
With that being said, there is nothing I can say that can prove enough that "Room" manages to pull off so many genres and elicit such powerful performances from two actors without letting the audience feel cheated. The confines of the spaces the movie takes place in never feel constricting from an entertainment point of view. Abrahamson manages to find different ways of looking at the same thing so that a small shed feels immense and a house in the suburbs can be suffocating. This is Jack's movie after all, and everything is smartly from his perspective.
This is a movie that hinges on the performance of Jack and Jacob Tremblay, as he has been being praised, is sensational. It feels like less of a performance and more of a genuine character that this young boy is. While Tremblay is staggering, he couldn't function without Brie Larson whose grief stricken and anxious performance always has nuance in it and doesn't feel like "the crying woman".
"Room's" accomplishments are too many to list. When I first heard about the movie I was so skeptical because the book seemed impossible to film...but now, consider me a believer.

Score: ★★★½

The Martian (2015) (PG-13)

Ridley Scott's name seems inseparable with science fiction. This is the director that brought audiences the "Alien" franchise and "Blade Runner" (which I still think I'm the only person who doesn't like that movie). His name remains in the conversation because he has made masterpieces but in recent years he seemed to drop of the radar. I think "Prometheus" was sensational but I was one of few and so with "The Martian", Scott returns to science fiction with one of the most solid pieces of entertainment in recent years.
Somehow, there's a safety when you go into "The Martian" simply because you might know the premise or have read the book. There's the knowledge that we aren't about to see a horror movie. Instead, "The Martian" is a much more watchable and less bleak version of "Cast Away" because we watch our hero battle the odds in MacGyver-like fashion when everything goes to shit around him. And to be fair, the movie throws wrenches into his plans left and right and Scott is a clever enough director to allow his audience to feel less interested in how the protagonist deals with these situations and more interested in the character himself, which is exactly how it should be.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a NASA mission to Mars when a storm hits and he is separated from the rest of his crew who are forced to take off and abort the mission. They think he's dead and back on Earth NASA big man Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is forced to announce to the public that Watney died.
But when Watney regains consciousness on Mars, he has to immediately go into survival mode to save his own skin, the result of which plays like many montages sequences of Matt Damon (who begins to narrate to the camera in a "video journal" fashion) fixing up the base and making cool new gadgets that help him survive. At one point, when faced with the inevitable starvation of waiting for the next ship to come to Mars, Watney looks right at the camera and says "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this." This slightly humorous line sort of sums up the entire movie: Mark Watney sciencing the shit out of Mars.
Back on Earth NASA is met with controversies and press releases and so much stress I think I was getting ulcers just watching it. The realization that Mark might still be alive sends NASA into a frenzy, not knowing how to get access to Mark and not wanting to let him die out there, but also preserving some sort of company integrity while doing so. And through all this let me just say, God bless Jeff Daniels. The man is a great actor and here he is used very well. He becomes the shining star of the movie, excluding Damon's own performance.
That's essentially the whole movie, which goes on for two and a half hours, but don't worry, you don't feel tired or cheated by this. The plot keeps moving really quickly and there's really no boredom ever on the screen. The action is high, the drama is real, and all the performances are spot on...with one exception.
When it comes to a movie of this caliber, any weaker moments fester in my mind and I can't let it go and sometimes it ruins the whole movie for me. In this case, it's Donald Glover. The all-star cast is rounded out by Glover who comes in with a very crucial but very minor role. He is the cocky college kid who is also a genius (naturally) and he plays up the super-nerd card so much it's almost unbearable to watch. He sticks out like a sore thumb, particularly when paired against other actors who are nothing short of believable. Glover has no business being in the movie and his antics make him seem more like a SNL hyperbole than a legitimate actor.
That's really my only complaint, I wish I could have been a movie god and flicked Donald Glover right out of the film itself...I'm usually a fan, but not this time.
"The Martian" is an easy success and Scott proves that he can pull a lot of emotion out of a technologically sophisticated script. There are a lot of cliches, the largest one being "people explain science with ordinary kitchen table objects" but in this "The Martian" is hardly the only movie participating in this. The security is always there because people love happy endings, but the ride was worth it.
You should go see this movie.

Score: ★★★½

Steve Jobs (2015) (R)

"Steve Jobs" is not a movie without a history. The movie's preliminary line-up looked nothing like the movie that is being shown now. It was a different production company, a different lead actor, and a different director. The movie passed hands when David Fincher left—and the prospect of a repetition of "The Social Network" excitement of having Fincher work with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin again was lost—and then lead star Christian Bale exited the project. The film floundered in limbo for a when Sony ditched the project until Universal picked it up and ran with it, gaining an all-star cast with flashy director (and one of my favorites) Danny Boyle at the helm.
I think the history is useful for the movie because it exemplifies two things: 1) Aaron Sorkin remains constant and 2) companies come and go. This possible betrayal of allegiances can be seen coating every frame of the film as the movie's protagonist fumbles with companies too cowardly to understand his 'heroic vision'.
"Steve Jobs" attempts to correct a lot of what "Jobs" did wrong. Ashton Kutcher may have tried to revitalize his career with the movie, but he failed to prove anything beyond what we knew: it was going to suck. With the newest, more colorful version of the story, Aaron Sorkin returns to what he does best, people walking down hallways. The "West Wing" feel of the movie is impossible to shake, especially considering the male-on-male emotional shouting that occurs in the movie's most climactic and frenziedly edited scene in which Steve Job argues with Apple CEO Sculley....but more on that later.
The movie's theater occurs not-so ironically in theaters. The film takes place over three distinct time periods, each at the unveiling of Jobs' newest innovation, two of which fall flat. There is the sense of anticipation as the movie moves theaters from 1984 to 1988 to 1998 and the audience's knowledge of Steve Jobs is expected. I cannot shake the fact that I'm writing this on a Mac and the implications thereof are not lost on me; but Sorkin throws many subtleties into the film as part of his homage to Walter Isaacson's book on which the movie is based. I've read Steve Jobs and I think I'm better off for it because the movie, much like parts of the book, is much less interested in Jobs as the technological and innovative figure that he was and more interested with him as a father to a child he may have never wanted.
Sorkin bumbles into this father and daughter theme with as much grace as "Interstellar" did, which is to say none. Both movies feature strong screenwriters being overly sentimental for no apparent reason and it makes for awkward viewing because you're keenly aware that you are watching a movie during these moments.
Perhaps the movie's contained feeling (maybe an attempt to generate a claustrophobia) is where it suffers, because the theater setting of the movie reminds us that we are watching performances of performances, though Sorkin's script doesn't deserve that level of nuance...he's a pretty loud writer and he knows it.
Michael Fassbender inhabits the iconic role with as much grace and force as one could hope. He's a really great actor and he's opposed by Kate Winslet's Joanna Hoffman. I'm not saying Winslet is bad, but her accent ranges from American to British to Italian and I'm not sure what to make of it. The surprise performance of the movie is Seth Roger as Steve Wozniak who not only looks a great deal like his real-life counterpart, but manages to pull a lot of emotion from scenes that felt stiff and unnecessary.
The movie takes great pains to show Steve Jobs as a fractured protagonist. Someone who's got a lot going on in their life and it is never presumptuous enough to try to justify those things...until the last scene. If the movie could erase its ending ten minutes, it would be that much better off. A shaved ending would leave the audience with all the right markers to make their own decision about the man but it seems like Sorkin was scared (after having upset Mark Zuckerberg along with countless others) and had to end on a happy note, with Steve Jobs really quickly making amends and rising to success at the launch of iMac in 1998.
The performances here are good and the direction is fine but lacking Boyle's usual flair. You can see it in rare glimpses of a beauty that could have been a wildly entertaining movie when projections of words fill up the blank space of a page or a speech turns into images projected on a wall behind the characters. It's all theater in some fashion, but the digital manipulation is much missed and needed. This could be attributed to Anthony Dod Mantle's missing presence as Boyle's usual cinematographer. With his absence, the movie feels like that one weaker episode of a great TV show.
The scene that dazzles the most also shows the immature of both the script and the direction. Sculley (a likable Jeff Daniels) and Jobs are screaming at each other about publicity and the act of a martyr and suddenly multiple scenes get cut into one. Flashbacks randomly jump into dialogue as a four way conversation with past and present selves begin. It's flashy, fun, and a lot of the shouting gets lost in screams of heightened emotions. It's wonderfully entertaining and pointless. It's about generating that emotion, which for me, worked...but I'm an easily emotionally manipulated person so that's not saying a lot.
In the end, I think I enjoyed it because the references to SuperBowl commercials and computing systems named LISA were familiar to me. The movie's final scene is grossly unneeded and reaffirms Steve Jobs as a hero and not a man, which the whole movie was trying to contradict. Danny Boyle's influence is fun, wacky, and very, very Sorkin. It's a frightening fast-paced movie that does little to let its more potent moments sink in. Great acting, good execution, but lacking a maturity and an actual climax.
The movie seems more interested in paralleling its own production history, which passed from hands to hands and made some people upset than crafting a movie about Steve Jobs. With this in mind, Sorkin's script is less than original, though I certainly enjoyed him trying.

Score: ★★½