Friday, October 23, 2015


There are men who kidnap and imprison women in order to keep them as their own personal sex slaves, often for years. This is a real thing that happens, and that fact will never cease to sicken me and completely freak me out. So, starting with a premise like that means Room is a tough film to experience. Some might wonder if it's worth it. I think it is, primarily for the extraordinary performances from Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as her five-year-old son, Jack.

Jack narrates much of the story, so we see things through his young, literally sheltered eyes. Room, as Jack calls their prison, is all he knows, and as such, it's much less of a prison to him as it is to Ma. The objects around him are treated like friends, and named: Lamp; Wardrobe; Meltedy Spoon. Excitement can be had in the changing shadows on the wall. A child's imagination can blossom even in the most constricting of settings.

But the concept of a world "outside" is difficult for Jack to comprehend. A skylight is their only view outside of Room, and a patch of sky is all they can see; a blurry TV serves as the bigger window. Ma does her best to teach Jack about the world and eventually comes up with a plan to escape. What results is a scene filled with as much tension and suspense as you'll find in any action film.

Young Jacob Tremblay is really remarkable to watch. There is not a single moment of his performance that feels phony or amateur. (Get this kid a tiny Oscar, stat!) Ma is a more challenging role, as she's (deservedly) bitter and depressed, and can easily come off as unlikable. But Brie Larson does a good job of making her heartbreaking, tough, and admirable. Ma is a hero, and the best mother she could possibly be. It's just a shame no one in the movie ever really tells her that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Not Particularly Scary: Crimson Peak, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

Is a horror movie a failure if it doesn't manage to scare you? Perhaps. And especially if an aim to fright is the only thing its got going for it. But Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak is so insanely lush, beautiful, and classically gothic that it almost seems like nitpicking to point out that it's not particularly scary,

Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, (a nice nominal nod to Hammer star Peter Cushing), the only child of her widowed father (Jim Beaver), a wealthy industrialist in early 1900's Buffalo, New York. She's an aspiring writer, and therefore a bit of a social outcast. When a member of the local high society chides her as being the next Jane Austen, "She died an old maid, didn't she?," Edith replies, "I'd rather be Mary Shelly; she died a widow."

She's the plucky kind of anachronistic heroine modern audience can get behind. She's not just writing a story, she's writing a ghost story, a subject she knows something about, having been visited by the ghost of her dead mother when she was a young girl. Edith would rather stay home with a pile of reference books than accept an offer of a date from handsome friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunman).

That is, until a Sir Thomas Middleton, (Tom Hiddleston), enters the picture. He's an English baronet who has come to America seeking investors for a mining machine of his own invention, one that will mine the mineral rich red clay (used to make bricks) that sits below his property. Edith's father is not impressed with him, or his creepy sister, (Jessica Chastain, in her 86th screen appearance this year).

The film's beginning is filled with gorgeous costumes: lots of corseted waists and bell sleeves for the ladies, and white ties and top hats for the gentlemen, along with homes full of dark wood interiors, walls of books, and ten piece table settings. It's easy to sink into the comfortable opulence and eye candy; it's like The Age of Innocence with ghosts. Which makes the change of scenery to crumbling Allerdale Hall all the more shocking; the only thing the two homes have in common is the ghosts.

Allerdale Hall is so over the top creepy, it's like Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion" on acid. There's a giant hole in the roof, allowing leaves (from unseen trees) to constantly rain into the entrance hall, along with snow and bugs. The mansion sits atop (and is slowly sinking into) a mountain of Sir Thomas's precious red clay, and red ore seeps through the floors. And the walls. And the water. Basically, what isn't covered in dead flies or fluttering moths is or will eventually be covered in red ooze.

It's little surprise that a brother and sister who would choose to live together in a rotting mansion with oozing walls have something else up their fancy sleeves, and following classic gothic romantic tradition, there are secrets to be found in locked up rooms, and a mysterious past that will be revealed. Wasikowska, with her porcelain skin and yellow blonde hair is the perfect waify counterpoint to the uber-goth siblings. Within the darkened halls of Allerdale, she almost looks like a ghost herself.

Which brings us back to those ghosts. Oh, the ghosts. They do a lot of screaming, and slamming around, and are, I suppose, spooky looking. But they never do anything truly unexpected; they aren't apparitions that will haunt your dreams. Maybe this is why de Toro amps up the gore factor. It's always easier to gross an audience out than it is to scare one, and there are plenty of stabbings, slicings, and head crushings to add a good dose of splatter to the movie's horror.

Crimson Peak wants to be a lot of things, and it doesn't succeed at all of them. But when it does succeed it is so bewitching that its faults can be excused. It belongs alongside the classics of the Hammer Studios and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, visual masterpieces that take advantage of all the indulgences the horror genre has to offer.

Bridge of Spies

This review originally appeared on

I was convinced I'd be bored silly by Bridge of Spies, mainly because I'm not a fan of Spielberg's "serious" movies. When it comes to those films, he never has any confidence in his audience, hammering his points home over and over again, just in case someone in the back row was sleeping the first time the point was made. But Bridge of Spies is more of a classic espionage film than any kind of commentary on the Cold War, so it falls in an area between Spielberg's "fun" movies, and his Oscar-bait. (Joel and Ethan Coen are co-writers on the screenplay, so that might have something to do with the film's enjoyment factor, although there's nothing overtly "Coen-esque" about it.)

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is forced to defend accused Russian spy Rudolph Abel (an excellently wry Mark Rylance), and ultimately finds himself in the middle of a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. Donovan was a real guy, and the story is based on real events, which means unlike most spy movies, there aren't any big shootouts or car chases. Instead you have your basic everyman sitting in a series of very chilly German locations, fighting off a cold, while he negotiates the highest level release of not one, but two American prisoners; it's not action, but it is suspense.

Hanks brings his expert comic timing to the role, making Donovan inherently likable and relatable, while Spielberg brings his expert craftmanship to the direction. Even when I don't like a Spielberg movie, I still appreciate that he knows how to tell a story well and has a firm grip on all the tools at his disposal. Happily, the result this time is a solid bit of entertainment that probably won't garner any Oscar nominations — which is a sure sign that it's actually worth seeing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian

NASA's shuttle program was shuttered a few years back, and Hollywood has reacted to this by producing a number of movies that center on astronauts and their adventures in space; if you can't be it, dream it. And now it seems like space itself is reacting to the slowing of NASA, basically screaming at us to get back up there: "LOOK! WATER! COME! NOW!"

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left behind by his crew after they assume he was killed by the sand storm that forced them to abandon Mars before the end of their mission. At first Watney fears the worst: that he's just going to starve to death up there, since he has limited food and no way of contacting his crew or anyone back on Earth. The rest of the movie is about how he — and his fellow NASA scientists — solve those, and many other problems.

I read Andy Weir's original novel and, frankly, it was one of the most boring books I've ever read. But I will freely admit I just don't have the kind of mind that's entertained by math and lengthy — and I do mean LENGTHY — explanations on exactly how you can grow potatoes on Mars using your own crap. For me, the book was a fantastic story, poorly told. The movie takes that story, and tells it exceptionally.

It's fitting that it comes from director Ridley Scott, whose Alien is a perfect dark counterpart to The Martian. While both are, ultimately, about trying to survive in the inhospitable realms of space, Alien narrows that survival down to one woman having to figure out how to do that on her own. The Martian is about how even the smartest guy on Mars can only get so far before needing help from a bunch of other smart men and women back on Earth.

Unlike the recent Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian doesn't wander off into deep philosophical realms. Instead, it sticks to facts, problem solving, and science. And while this may sound incredibly dry and boring, (as it often was in the book), thanks to a strong and very humorous performance from Matt Damon, and Scott's veteran direction, it's unapologetically entertaining, with a pretty simple message: Space is pretty amazing; but there's nothing more amazing than the capabilities of the human mind.