BEFORE I WAKE (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent Content and Terror including Disturbing Images

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Topher Bousquet, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Scottie Thompson & Justin Gordon

Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as a rising talent in the horror genre. He’s made waves with ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, and the far-better-than-expected OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. In spite of his many accomplishments (ranging from impressive to miracle-working), one of Flanagan’s movies has been frequently delayed in its journey to theaters and is currently gathering dust on a studio’s shelf. Suffering multiple release date changes before being delayed indefinitely, BEFORE I WAKE is a horror-fantasy that has seemingly been released everywhere but the USA. I had to import a copy from Canada to write this review. So, is this film worth the wait or is there a clear reason why the studio is holding off on releasing it? The answer to this question, like the film itself, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are grieving parents who wish to move on by adopting a foster child. This lucky kid is Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an eight-year-old boy who’s been dealt plenty of short straws in life. The new parents take an instant liking to this well-behaved youngster, but it turns out that Cody comes with some baggage. While Cody sleeps, his dreams physically manifest around him. This seems wonderful at first with beautiful butterflies and the couple’s deceased son returning for a bit of unexpected therapy. However, this gift also has a dark side as it turns out that Cody’s nightmares are potentially deadly. Jessie and Mark must figure out how to put a stop to Cody’s bad dreams before they wind up killed or eaten.

BEFORE I WAKE has an undeniably cool premise that is aching for imaginative visuals and (literal) nightmarish imagery. However, this story takes a long while to get going. This has been billed as a straight-up scarefest (much like Flanagan’s other efforts), but that’s not necessarily the case. BEFORE I WAKE feels like a Guillermo Del Toro produced fantasy-horror flick rather than an all-out horror movie. Almost 45 minutes pass before the film’s momentum really gets moving and that feels like far too long of a wait, even though this time is dedicated to developing characters. I rarely complain about this in my reviews, but this story had way too much character development. Scenes of exposition and family bonding detract from the film’s main dream/nightmare plot.

After nearly half the running time has passed, the film finally starts moving at a brisk pace and employing a few neat twists along the way. The nightmarish visuals are appropriately creepy and I really dug the design of a skeletal boogeyman nicknamed “The Canker Man.” BEFORE I WAKE also took a few ballsy turns before diving into an appropriately fantastical third act. One of these scenes is so unexpected that Flanagan deserves serious props for drastically shifting off the beaten path and then not taking an easy way out on this plot point. The beautiful imagery is cool to look at, while the darker moments appropriately seem to be yanked right out of a child’s nightmares.

The best performance of the film belongs to Thomas Jane as new father Mark. He comes off as a likable, down-to-earth guy and I was rooting for him to survive this dream-logic fueled plot. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth is a deliberately flawed character and this comes into the play throughout the story. Bosworth tries her best to make Jessie worth rooting for and this mostly pays off by the end of the film. However, the viewer may find themselves really struggling to like her during the first two-thirds of the running time. Jacob Tremblay (who delivered some of the best child acting ever in ROOM) is solid enough as innocent, unintentionally dangerous Cody.

As I mentioned before, BEFORE I WAKE is more of a dark fantasy than it is a flat-out horror flick. It will constantly be labeled under the latter genre because of its director and the nightmarish imagery. However, this film really pays off on its grim fairy tale vibe with a hugely satisfying conclusion. The first half of this script uses blatantly annoying foreshadowing in conversations between characters, but the final pay-off remains great. I thoroughly loved this movie’s ending. It takes things out on a high-note and there’s something to be said for just how smart the writing is during the film’s final minutes.

BEFORE I WAKE has likely been shelved because the story takes a bit too long to get going and it’s more of a fantasy than the horror flick that’s already been sold to the public. The film has problems in its muddled pacing during the first half, suffers from obvious foreshadowing early on, and Kate Bosworth’s character is downright unlikable for a solid chunk of the film. When this movie fully takes off halfway through, it’s a major step-up in quality and imagination. There are lots of neat images throughout the nightmare sequences that will surely please horror fans and the final third is pretty great. Temper your expectations when this one eventually hits US shores and you’ll likely enjoy it for the decent horror-fantasy that it is.

Grade: B-

ROOM (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Room poster

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Written by: Emma Donoghue

(based on the novel ROOM by Emma Donoghue)

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Megan Park & Cas Anvar

2015 has been quite a wild year for movies. I’m deeply interested in seeing how the Academy Award nominations and winners play out early next year. There are tons of fantastic cinematic surprises that have erupted onto the screen during this end-of-year awards season and ROOM is on the top-tier of these phenomenal dramas. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, ROOM is a deeply moving rollercoaster of emotions set on an intimate scale and populated by a handful of well-written characters. It’s also one of the most beautiful and powerful films of the year.

Room

Jack has spent the first five years of his life hidden away. Jack’s mother, Joy, was abducted as a teenager and has spent seven years locked in the dingy backyard shed (called Room) of “Old Nick” (Jack’s rapist father). Joy has done her best to shield Jack from the awful truth of their single-room life. As a result, Jack has grown up thinking that Room is the entire world. As tensions between “Old Nick” and captive Joy rise to dangerous new levels, motherly survival instincts kick into full force and a dangerous escape is made. Even when they do make it to the outside world, both Jack and Joy will have the harrowing experience of adapting to the outside world after years spent in a confined shed.

Room 2

One thing that’s been receiving huge praise from others and that I will continue to praise here is the acting in ROOM. Brie Larson has a solid chance of getting the Oscar for Best Actress and she has earned every bit of it. As Joy, Larson shows love for her son and pain from her circumstances in equal measure. The movie may be centered more around her character’s son, but Larson’s Joy serves as an astounding adult counterpart to the impressive 9-year-old actor. As Jack, Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the best performances from a child actor that I’ve ever seen. He’s simply incredible and remains absolutely convincing through every frame of the film. This was clearly a demanding role and Trembly also portrays the more frustrating aspects of a five-year-old (occasionally driving his mom up the wall with frustration).

Room 3

On the sidelines, Joan Allen and William H. Macy are Joy’s distraught parents and Jack’s newfound grandparents. Though William H. Macy doesn’t necessarily have a huge part in the film, he makes the most of the scenes he’s been given and has one especially heartbreaking moment. Joan Allen feels totally genuine as Joy’s concerned mother and Jack’s loving grandmother. Allen fits the part well and delivers quiet, heartfelt moments during the second half of the film. Though he only receives screen time in the first act of the story, Sean Bridgers is infuriating and creepy as “Old Nick.”

Room 4

It’s worth mentioning that I haven’t read the novel that ROOM is based on. If it’s anywhere near as powerful or as well-constructed as this film is, then I’ll definitely have to give it a look in the near future. The decision to have this heavy and mature survival story narrated from a five-year-old’s perspective was a risky move, but paid off in spades. Little details stick out to give the viewer clues to the more mature aspects of the story happening among the adults. Jack’s narration gives the film an innocent quality too as he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him. While parts of this make for a couple of lines that are bound to elicit gasps and sobs from certain viewers, there are also a couple of well-placed pieces of cute humor that keep the movie from being a completely depressing tear-jerker.

Room 5

ROOM uses many different emotions to tell its heart wrenching and powerful story. The beginning has tension as Jack learns the truth and the escape is made. The middle is where most of the heartbreak and tragedy come to a head. The conclusion is a perfect way to end the story as sheer beauty and unconditional love breaks loose. I was on the edge of my seat during the intense first act and was crying on-and-off during the rest of the film (other theater patrons seemed to have the exact same reactions as well). The performances and writing are perfect. ROOM is a deeply moving masterpiece and easily one of the best films of 2015.

Grade: A+

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