Joan Allen

Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


Face/Off (1997, John Woo)

A lot of Face/Off is okay. Nicolas Cage does a great job as the hero stuck with the villain’s face and makes it worth watching. The same can’t be said for John Travolta, who’s only a little better as the villain with the hero’s face than he was as the hero (the movie’s got a half hour plus opening act), and he’s terrible as the hero.

I haven’t seen Face/Off in many years, though I’d probably still assume it’s Woo’s best American film. It’s amazing what stylization does to a picture–the story’s so stupid it could have been Tango & Cash 2 (well, okay, maybe not Tango & Cash 2, as some of the scenes are really effectively written), but people loved it.

Woo didn’t make those scenes good, it’s pretty clear; he’s totally disinterested with anything nuanced. He’s also disinterested with getting good performances. Besides Joan Allen, Robert Wisdom and CCH Pounder, practically every performance is cartoonish and awful. Alessandro Nivolo, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes… their performances make one wonder if the casting director was just playing a joke on the audience. Gina Gershon’s weak too, but more miscast than bad. Margaret Cho, however, gives one of the worst performances I can think of right now.

There’s a lot of good stunt work, a lot of gunfights–it’s hard to call them good, since everyone has bad aim except when shooting at unnamed very supporting cast members and it gets annoying, and it’s never boring until the finale.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Christian Wagner and Steven Kemper; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by David Permut, Barrie M. Osborne, Terence Chang and Christopher Godsick; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler) and Colm Feore (Dr. Malcolm Walsh).


Death Race (2008, Paul W.S. Anderson)

Death Race opens with an almost too classy intro text (reminiscent of Escape from New York, intentionally I’m sure) informing the viewer in 2012, the U.S. economy collapses. Death Race opened in August 2008… is Paul W.S. Anderson now a seer? With all-powerful, insulated corporations and cops beating protesters… it’s the perfect movie for this year. It’s just too bad they were using rubber bullets instead of Tasers, so I guess Anderson isn’t always spot-on in his fortune telling.

All joking aside, Death Race has to be Anderson’s best film. He manages to fully embrace his own mediocrity, but here he infuses it with a more capable cast than usual and his action scenes are good. They aren’t exciting, but they’re masterfully executed, which is more than enough to engage the viewer. It’s the only time I’ve ever thought of Anderson in the same vein as Carpenter–but whereas Carpenter was inventive, Anderson’s simply a competent recycler of other people’s better ideas.

There isn’t a single interesting thing Anderson does in Death Race, except maybe go soft for his ending. But it’s slick and well-produced.

The key is Jason Statham. Statham can make Anderson’s dialogue sound good. There are other good performances in the movie, but only Statham’s delivery rises above the material. The secret to Statham’s solid performance–as usual for him–is his ability to appear to be an intelligent actor but never condescend the material. The more respectable actors in the cast–Joan Allen and Ian McShane–are both aware of Death Race‘s artistic import (specifically, its lack thereof). Allen seems to be slumming for fun and has a great time, while McShane is miscast. While he’s fine, he doesn’t embrace the movie’s absurdity. He isn’t having fun and all Death Race is about is fun.

Another solid performance comes from Tyrese Gibson. I’ve never seen him in anything before–wait, I guess he was in Transformers but didn’t make an impression; his performance is strong. He’s a likable antagonist. He doesn’t manage to escape all of Anderson’s lousy dialogue–in some ways, he has the worst of it–but his good moments far exceed his bad. Anderson always ends Gibson’s scenes with some exit line and the exit lines are always terrible. Some of them even look like they were added in post-production, which is unfortunate.

Death Race actually comes close–during the racing scenes, where Anderson is running a pure filmic adrenaline line–to being a good movie. Because these are the best scenes and are unrelated to the larger story, it’s obviously not going to work out. But they’re good enough to convince some magic might occur. After all, he did see the future of the economy. The ending disappoints in some ways–despite handling Allen so well, he objectifies Natalie Martinez (after spending the whole movie not treating her in that manner). I forgot about Martinez above; she’s okay, some bad scenes, some good… but better than expected. Just like the rest of the movie.

Wait, I’m wrong. Anderson does do something really interesting with Death Race. He implies Gibson’s character is gay. One scene gives Gibson the opportunity to deny it and he doesn’t. It’s a bold move for a b-movie pseudo-blockbuster….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; screenplay and screen story by Anderson, based on a screenplay by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith and a story by Ib Melchior; director of photography, Scott Kevan; edited by Niven Howie; music by Paul Haslinger; production designer, Paul D. Austerberry; produced by Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Roger Corman and Paula Wagner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jason Statham (Jensen Ames), Joan Allen (Hennessey), Ian McShane (Coach), Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe Mason), Natalie Martinez (Elizabeth Case), Max Ryan (Pachenko), Jacob Vargas (Gunner), Jason Clarke (Ulrich), Frederick Koehler (Lists), Justin Mader (Travis Colt), Robert LaSardo (Grimm) and Robin Shou (14K).


Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann), the restored director’s cut

The last time I watched Manhunter (the first time I saw the director’s cut), my friend maintained the film’s superiority laid in the added scenes. The director’s cut mostly features more scenes concerning the effect of manhunting serial killers on William Petersen’s character. On this viewing, it’s clear the film’s greatness isn’t so simply assigned. While Manhunter‘s approach to the serial killer genre–the emphasis on the investigation’s psychological destruction–and those additional scenes to contribute, it isn’t the only factor. Also incredibly important, maybe just as important, is Mann’s humanization of Tom Noonan’s serial killer. Manhunter‘s actually at its lowest point when the Petersen-centric plot comes to a close. A lot has gone on (even though the film’s approach to police stings–a distant one, without explaining anything to the viewer–is brilliant) and it seems like it’s not going anywhere, the film switches focus to Noonan and becomes something wholly new. Mann doesn’t juxtapose the characters, he doesn’t mirror them; the scenes are totally unrelated, except in the beat when Petersen has his eureka and Noonan has his meltdown. And then it’s only stylized cinema.

Mann’s approach to the filmmaking, the vibrant colors, the singular composition (I can’t imagine what it must have looked like on a big screen), the synthesizer soundtrack, wows. It sets Manhunter apart not just from every other serial killer movie but also every other Mann film. He takes what is, at most times, a small and quiet story and makes it as big as Cinerama. The realization montages are still unparalleled and the procedural investigation ones are spectacular as well. But Mann’s best scene, maybe his best scene as a director, is still that walk down the supermarket aisle where the boxes don’t match from shot to shot. The way he opens it up. It’s absolutely brilliant.

All of the acting is good. Petersen isn’t perfect, but he has some great moments. His “my man” line reading, combined with the score and the sound, is great film. Noonan’s great, as are Joan Allen and Brian Cox. Dennis Farina, back before he had his schtick down, is also good. Only Stephen Lang is a little broad, though it’s probably intentional, as he is playing a tabloid reporter. The best performance in the film is Kim Greist, though Mann’s probably responsible for it.

I always think about turnarounds–quality turnarounds–and I think Manhunter‘s the best example of one with a bump-up (due to the Noonan focus) from superior genre picture to an actual masterpiece. It’s strange, because I can remember it getting monotonous in the middle, but I’d never use that word to describe the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on a novel by Thomas Harris; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Michel Rubini; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Roth; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Starring William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Michael Talbott (Geehan), Dan Butler (Jimmy Price), Michele Shay (Beverly Katz), Robin Moseley (Sarah), Paul Perri (Dr. Sidney Bloom) and Patricia Charbonneau (Mrs. Sherman).


Pleasantville (1998, Gary Ross)

All through Pleasantville, I kept wondering how–for a film with so many problems–it could have not only some of the most emotionally affecting (not effective) scenes I can remember seeing, but also an overwhelming ending, which makes the whole film seem like it was better than it was… Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end on the producer list. That one’s a cheap shot at Gary Ross, but there’s a litany of things wrong with Pleasantville.

Firstly, it makes no sense. It doesn’t establish any reasonable rules for its fantasy (in fact, it seems to be trying to play down the fact it’s a far out science fiction story about a couple kids’ adventure in an alternate reality). The people and objects colorize for emphasis, not for any logical reason. It’s distracting and cheap–Pleasantville is very cheap. It’s the intelligentsia (or what passes for them in America–and in Hollywood films for that matter–so think Spielberg, which Ross does a lot) sucker punching the right wing. There’s another problem with Pleasantville: it presents a number of complicated problems and gives them all easy solutions. Some people exist after they switch universes, others appear to be gone from the collective memory. But back the sucker punching the right wing. The bad guys in Pleasantville are a bunch of white guys who are pissed off their wives aren’t cooking them dinner. I had to remember it came out before 2001, because I really can’t see it being released otherwise until a couple years ago (when Hollywood finally stopped lionizing fascist white men). Ross is real cheap with his comparisons too–are the newly conscious people of Pleasantville supposed to be stand-ins for blacks in America circa 1958, Jews in Germany circa 1934, or something else entirely? Or all three, whenever it suits Ross for the most effective scene (he loves the Nazi imagery though).

It’s weird to see a film, recognize it’s working you over, yet still let it do that number on you. And Pleasantville does it. It might be the only film to do it.

Ross’s composition is poor, the editing of the film is atrocious, so what drives it home. Randy Newman’s score is immeasurably important and the film couldn’t work without it, but it also couldn’t work without the performances. Tobey Maguire’s been so ineffective for so long, it’s a bit of a shock to see him act so well. Reese Witherspoon is even good, though her role is very simple. But the film works because of two people–Jeff Daniels and Joan Allen. Allen’s too good for it and she brings the material up to her level. Daniels’s role is also geared to be cheap (the character goes through extraordinary change in five hours, which take place over five minutes in the film, and we’re supposed to be wowed), but his performance is touching and tragic and wonderful and the longing in the scenes between the two of them, the longing for something unknowable… it makes Pleasantville a significant and essential viewing experience. It’s a cheap film, terribly, terribly cheap, but it’s a magnificent two hours and four minutes.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gary Ross; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by William Goldenberg; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Ross, Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus and Steven Soderbergh; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Tobey Maguire (David), Jeff Daniels (Mr. Johnson), Joan Allen (Betty), William H. Macy (George), J.T. Walsh (Big Bob), Don Knotts (TV Repairman), Marley Shelton (Margaret), Jane Kaczmarek (David’s Mom) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer).


The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)

The only good thing about The Bourne Ultimatum, besides Joan Allen, who can apparently survive (and fluorish in) anything, is how rabidly anti-Republican the film’s details get. The film’s CIA bad guys in this one are using the “war on terror“ to assassinate US citizens. I haven’t read an outcry about it, so I imagine it isn’t my being more adept at recognizing the parallels (or propagandizing), but rather the stupidity of American filmgoers.

But besides that aspect, Ultimatum is a heinous piece of work. For the first half, while nothing happens except a travel video, I kept thinking about Paul Greengrass’s attempt at cinéma vérité, specifically–if it’s supposed to be ultra-real, why is there a musical score blaring the entire time. I mean, it must have occurred to someone, right? I can’t imagine sales of The Bourne Ultimatum score are profitable enough to excuse an enormous conceptual mistake.

It soon becomes clear Ultimatum is following all the set pieces of the second movie (I can’t remember the title right now), only with different details. There’s even the part where the girlfriend’s going to die, only with minor deviations. Then Bourne gets to New York and there’s a neat tie-in to the end of the second movie and then it’s over after a chase scene. It’s not just absent any character development, it’s absent any palpable content.

Watching the film, having seen Matt Damon most recently acting well in Ocean’s Twelve and even better in Syriana, I realized this Bourne performance–absent any humanity–is really a Marky Mark impression. But not Marky Mark in actual films, rather Marky Mark in previews to his films. Or it’s Damon’s audition tape for Terminator 4. After the first half hour or hour or three days, however long the film goes before they get to New York, I kept waiting for Damon to act. And I’m still waiting.

Like I said, Allen is good. I agreed to see the film because David Strathairn’s probably never been bad. And now I can’t make that statement anymore. It’s not his fault; he’s just playing a Republican, so he too is absent any humanity. I felt really bad for him, it’s a considerable slight against his body of work. Albert Finney’s pretty lame too, but his quality resurgence is recent; there have to be some real stinkers in there over the course of his career. Allen and Strathairn really deserve a good movie (a good John Sayles movie maybe). Julia Stiles shows up for a bit and she’s okay. The character revelations about her and Damon are probably illegal but who cares. Scott Glenn has a small role and he’s awful. Greengrass appears not to care whether or not his actors act well. But if he’s missing the thing about there not being a musical score in real life, worrying about acting is a bit too much to ask.

The action scenes are generally terrible. There’s a car chase identical to the one in the second movie, there are some fight scenes (again, probably identical, I wasn’t paying attention–they’re trying to endure). The script’s not simply unimaginative, it’s particularly terrible. It’s obvious and predictable, with terrible dialogue and ludicrous character developments and reactions.

I didn’t expect it to be so boring, but then I didn’t expect it to be a rehash of the second movie either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, based on a story by Gilroy and the novel by Robert Ludlum; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by John Powell; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley and Paul L. Sandberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Julia Stiles (Nicky Parsons), David Strathairn (Noah Vosen), Scott Glenn (Ezra Kramer), Paddy Considine (Simon Ross), Edgar Ramirez (Paz), Albert Finney (Dr. Albert Hirsch) and Joan Allen (Pamela Landy).


The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee)

When I was a wee lad, I loved Ang Lee. I loved him only for The Ice Storm, never having seen Sense and Sensibility or his Chinese language films. I avoided Ride With the Devil after the reviews (both professional and from peers) and Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon was a truly sleep-inducing experience. I gave up my Lee love after that one, though, and when I came across The Ice Storm on Netflix, I realized I’d forgotten it. I hadn’t forgotten the book, of course, since I started reading Rick Moody about the same time I stopped seeing Ang Lee films. After reading the book, I recognized the differences, but now, watching the movie again, I can’t specifically remember them. The novel is a novel and the film is a film. The Ice Storm is the best example of a great book being adapted into a great film that I can think of….

Maybe what Lee needs is a subject as confining as The Ice Storm. Most of the shots are inside and his work there is amazing. I can’t remember a film where the focus effected me as much as this one. The story moves between 8 characters and–sometimes, not always–Lee uses the focus to signify which character’s POV we’re in. There’s a lot of juxtaposing and rhyming, but the film maintains a lyric sense about it. The music is used in an interesting way, because sometimes it does something, other times it does something similar, but entirely different. Half of the film takes place during the titular ice storm, but the film manages not to de-emphasize the first hour. The pacing makes the second hour feel like a (somewhat longer) third act, which it isn’t.

All of the acting is good, with Jamey Sheridan probably turning in the most unexpectedly excellent performance. Elijah Wood is really good too. But, it’s just such a dreary film, it’s hard enough to experience without talking about. The film–with its sudden exterior shots, just as encroaching and constrictive as its interior ones–is probably drearier than the novel even. There’s maybe five of these exterior shots–wooded path, daytime, but they resonate so strongly. They do work that the written medium cannot do, which is a hell of compliment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Schamus and Lee; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Carver), Henry Czerny (George Clair), Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver), David Krumholtz (Francis Davenport), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver) and Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey).


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