REVIEW: “Room”

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Each year a handful of movies come along, movies I was completely unaware of, and they absolutely blow me away. It’s one of the real treats of the movie year – being blindsided by a high quality film. More often than not these are smaller independent pictures that unfortunately don’t get the same press or push offered to many lesser big budget films. The succinctly titled “Room” leads this year’s small but admired group of fantastic cinematic surprises.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 award-winning novel of the same name. Donoghue was hired to handle the screenplay of what is essentially two stories. The first half is an entrancing mystery thriller while the second half deals directly with the emotional aftermath. But the core thread that runs from start to finish and the true centerpiece of the picture is the relationship between a mother and her son.

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Brie Larson plays a young woman named Joy. At age 17 she was kidnapped by a man we only know as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Repeatedly raped over a seven year period, she is kept locked up in a semi-furnished garden shed. During that time she became pregnant and gave birth to Jack (played with startling authenticity by Jacob Tremblay). The two call their 10 x 10 home ‘Room’. Everything in it has meaning to young Jack (he often starts the day saying good morning to their few possessions). They have a bed, sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, a makeshift kitchen, and a skylight. They are never allowed outside. This is literally 5 year-old Jack’s interpretation of the world.

The first half of the film shows us life inside Room. Over the years Joy has created a fabricated sense of normalcy for her son. Room is the world and TV represents make-believe. Joy does everything she can to protect Jack from the reality of their situation. But sensing she can’t take anymore, Joy begins breaking down the pretend walls she created to protect her son and puts together a risky plan of escape.

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The second half of the picture deals with a young boy’s discovery of the real world and a mother coming to terms with a truly horrible ordeal. We are introduced to Joy’s parents who have split up in the seven years their daughter has been missing. William H. Macy plays Joy’s father who still can’t cope with his guilt and grief. Joan Allen is fabulous as Joy’s mom, a much more stabilizing and supportive force.

Much of the film is seen from Jack’s perspective. Abrahamson does a strong job capturing the amazement of hearing a telephone or seeing a skyline for the first time. We also witness the anxiety and fears of talking to other people or even walking down a set of stairs. Everything is new to Jack (when hearing a knock on the door for the first time he warns “The door is ticking.” Even the camera works to relay these feelings, often subtly dropping to Jack’s height to observe a conversation or move from one place to another.

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Young Tremblay’s performance is astonishingly genuine and the amount of emotional detail he gives is beyond his young age. And his chemistry with Larson is warm, truthful, and without a hint of artifice. Larson proved herself to be a strong dramatic actress in 2013’s “Short Term 12”. Here we see her taking on a much more complicated and demanding role. Here she does work so rich with feeling and nuance. It’s a career defining performance.

“Room” plays with so many compelling ideas – child rearing, media manipulation, maternal bonding, post-traumatic stress, and isolation just to name a few. It pulls you through a range of emotions, breaking your heart multiple times along the way. But there is an underlying hope to “Room” that is even present during the most grim moments. And ultimately this is a story of the power and saving quality of love. It’s not always easy to watch, but that beautiful theme shines brightly through the film’s uncomfortable and harrowing exterior.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.