ROOM (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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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+

JURASSIC PARK III (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Terror and Violence

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Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

Starring: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola & Trevor Morgan

1993’s JURASSIC PARK has stood the test of time as an incredible adventure that has left a lasting impact on the cinematic world. 1997’s THE LOST WORLD wound up being a colossal disappointment that tried way too hard to duplicate its hit predecessor’s success (going as far as damn near replicating specific scenes from the first film). You have to hand a bit of backhanded praise to JURASSIC PARK III. This third dinosaur adventure doesn’t try to duplicate the first (or even second) film, instead this third installment feels like a Syfy Channel script somehow got thrown into the JURASSIC PARK series. Talk about a decline from former glory. I really hope that JURASSIC WORLD delivers this summer, because it has a lot to make up for with both sequels taken into consideration.

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Years after the incident at Jurassic Park (not to mention a T-Rex running loose through the streets of San Diego), Alan Grant has become famous. Unfortunately, his fame is tinged with bitter resentment that most aren’t taking his science seriously and people merely give him a celebrity status for surviving Dr. Hammond’s theme park. After a particularly embarrassing lecture, Grant is hired by the Kirbys to guide them through an air tour of the Jurassic island. Not surprisingly, there are ulterior motives for his presence. Paul and Amanda Kirby are actually parents to a child who went missing near the dinosaur-populated island. Grant, Billy (one of his students), the Kirbys and a few others find themselves running for their lives from the prehistoric monsters one last time.

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JURASSIC PARK III feels like the (three!) screenwriters and director are really just scraping the bottom of the barrel in the storyline department. The excuse to get people onto the island is possibly more ridiculous than THE LOST WORLD, not to mention that the characters have the personalities of cardboard cut-outs. For a third installment of a franchise that’s had plenty of blood and dinosaurs devouring people, JURASSIC PARK III plays it insanely safe. While I don’t want unnecessarily mean-spirited kills from THE LOST WORLD, the original JURASSIC PARK had cool death scenes in spite of you being able to count the casualties on one hand. This second sequel has uninspired deaths that don’t really show the characters turning into a dinosaur buffet. There’s almost no excitement to be had as the film rushes from scene to scene with a running time of just over 90 minutes (by far the shortest of the series).

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The dinosaurs themselves feel old and tired at this point too. There’s a T-Rex for a brief second, but the Velociraptors appear multiple times throughout. You’d think bringing back the scariest part of the original film would make for some intense scenes, but you’d be sorely mistaken. These once-terrifying dinosaurs have now been replaced by cheap looking puppets (introduced in a laughable attempt at a first jump scare). The once elegant Brachiosaurus is turned into a direct-to-video quality abomination with terrible looking CGI. There are two new dinosaurs to speak of that are enjoyable enough. There’s the Spinosaurus serving as the central antagonist and at the very least, he looks cool. Then there are the flying Pteranodons appearing in the best sequence of the entire movie. The real mystery comes from this JURASSIC PARK film having the highest budget, but somehow winding up with the worst effects in the series.

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JURASSIC PARK III is by far the worst in the franchise, but it’s not an all-out failure of a movie. Even Syfy Channel flicks can be slightly enjoyable garbage from time to time. That’s precisely where I’ll categorize this third film. The two new dinosaurs bring some mild enjoyment, even if the characters are hollow (including a strapped-for-cash Sam Neill) and the story is wafer-thin. JURASSIC PARK III at least has the good sense to be short. It almost seems like the movie is desperate to get itself over with. You could do a lot worse as far as monster movies are concerned, but you can also do a hell of a lot better!

Grade: D+

BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sex Scenes with Explicit Dialogue, Nudity, Drug Use, Language and Violence

Boogie Nights poster

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina & Thomas Jane

If you look up any “Best Films of the 90’s” list, you’re likely to see BOOGIE NIGHTS included on a few of them. There are quality reasons for that. This is the sophomore effort of Paul Thomas Anderson (who has received a lot of critical acclaim as a master storyteller), showcases a sprawling cast of big name actors, and received three Academy Award nominations (Supporting Actor and Actress, and Original Screenplay). This lengthy drama (over two hours) spans across a decade around a group people in the pornography business in a style reminiscent of Scorsese’s crime epics.

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Eddie Adams is a high school dropout living with his parents and working at a shady nightclub on the other side of town. It’s 1977 and the adult entertainment industry is booming. It comes as no surprise that Eddie runs across Jack Horner, a successful pornographic filmmaker interested in recruiting a well-endowed newcomer. Under the new name of Dirk Diggler, Eddie becomes infatuated with this amazing money-making business of sex and pleasure. All good things come to an end though and the bigger they are the harder they fall. You can see where this is heading…

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What’s really cool about BOOGIE NIGHTS is that it doesn’t just focus on Dirk Diggler in this time period. Instead, the overall plot is made up of a colorful characters given life by stellar cast members. These include the other porn stars and the film crew (ranging from the director to the sound guy to the cameraman and even the producer with skeletons in his closet). Each character is interesting in their own unique way. My two favorites being William H. Macy’s assistant director and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boom-mic operator. Dirk Diggler might not be the most compelling or redeemable person in the film (especially once fame gets to his head and ego), but it’s something else to see Mark Wahlberg acting his ass off in a part that’s unlike anything you see him play now. This is a film full of different stories and most of them revolve around living the dream and watching that lifestyle crumble away.

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BOOGIE NIGHTS doesn’t just rely on an amazing screenplay and stellar acting. It also has a whole lot of style to it. There’s a lot of confidence apparent in the directing here. A nice use of filters is made in showing off clips of Dirk’s films and the stereotypical music used in those faux pornos cracked me up (one trailer of a Bond-like piece of smut is hysterical). I would be remiss not to mention the awesome soundtrack that again is very much Scorsese-like in its use. There are a couple of moments of original score (including a moment I’d like to dub the heartbreak montage), but the film strings along many cool 70’s and 80’s hits to directly inject the viewer inside the scene’s time period.

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Seeing that BOOGIE NIGHTS takes place across both the late 70’s and the 80’s, the business of adult films is both glamorized and then torn down in just over two hours. The lifestyle we see Dirk living is a good one during the 70’s time period, but we also see the problems that come with it in the 80’s. As the porn stars try to go their own paths (John C. Reilly’s character notes “No one can fuck forever”) is where bad things happen. Despite the film supposedly being billed as only about the pornography business, we see how this former line of work takes its toll on budding careers in music and business owning. Cocaine also plays a huge part in the film as well and leads to possibly the best drug deal scene in film history.

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Seeing as the film is about people working in pornography, you’d expect some graphic sex scenes and there are a couple. However, it’s refreshingly toned down in the actual on-screen “porn” and doesn’t revel in the sex itself…at least from a movie with a plot like this. This may turn people off of the movie, because topless big-breasted women are shown as well as close-ups of thrusting. What I’m trying to say is that BOOGIE NIGHTS wasn’t nearly as graphic sexually as I was expecting it to be and that’s a plus, but I can imagine a lot of people snubbing their noses at this film even though it’s not about pornography (opting to focus on people).

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BOOGIE NIGHTS has been described as the GOODFELLAS of porn and I’m backing that up as the most accurate description for this flick. Paul Thomas Anderson displays remarkable talent in his second(!) film and the Oscar nominations were well deserved. It’s not as sexually graphic as you might believe, though there’s definitely a fair share of nudity given the subject matter. There’s less of an overall plot and more of a group of connected stories that make up the film. BOOGIE NIGHTS is fantastic!

Grade: A

FARGO (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

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Directed by: Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrud

FARGO is one of those films that I hear about all the time and have never seen before. It’s ironic, because I really dig everything I’ve seen from the Coen brothers (even their less popular efforts like BURN AFTER READING and THE LADYKILLERS). A lot of people seem to constantly reference or laugh about the funny moments in FARGO, but it’s not a total comedy. FARGO is actually a crime thriller that hinges on a lot of intricate plans that go sour due to misunderstandings between the characters and unexpected bumps in the road.

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It’s 1987 and the dead of winter. Jerry (William H. Macy) is an awkward car salesman dealing with some serious financial trouble. In order to score the money he needs to settle his debt, Jerry has set up the kidnapping of his own wife. Her father is extremely rich and will pay the ransom….to be dropped off by Jerry. The two kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) go through with the plan, as Jerry’s problems become more frustrating. Things go wrong and blood is shed, which brings in Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police officer. Despite expecting a baby in a matter of a few months, Marge is on top of her game and this creates even more difficulties for Jerry.

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Besides their mad directing skills, the Coen brothers are also famous for their writing talent. FARGO displays the siblings at the top of their game. The only redeeming traits in the lot of characters belong to Marge, Jean (Jerry’s wife) and a few characters only seen for less than 10 minutes of screen time. I’ve said it many times before and it still holds true with this film that characters don’t need to be seen as “good” people to be compelling. Jerry is a total scumbag, but he’s very entertaining to watch in how he’s simultaneously a coward and a constant manipulator. The real stand-outs belong to Carl and Gaear, the two kidnappers. These are two of the funniest villains to ever grace the screen and the laughs come for two completely different reasons. Buscemi plays the part of the short, funny-looking (as many other characters describe him) motor mouth. On the other hand, Stormare is a hulking thug who doesn’t say much and is far more intimidating, but also garners plenty of jokes from his subtle performance.

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The unexpected directions in the plot seem to come naturally too. Instead of a grand revelation or twist ending, we see the circumstances that all the characters are thrown in escalate for one reason or another. Needless to say that everything doesn’t go as planned, much in the same way as their later BURN AFTER READING, this could be viewed as a sort of comedy-of-errors. The tone is far more serious than people give it credit for though. That’s not to say that there aren’t funny moments though, because the script is packed with plenty of the Coens’ unique brand of humor.

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FARGO is the classic everybody harps it up to being, but it also delivers on far more than just humor. A few minutes before the conclusion, a certain character delivers a bit of profound dialogue that puts the events of the entire film in perspective. What this person says seems fairly obvious and to the point, but it’s the way in which the speech is delivered that leaves it sticking out in my mind. That’s what I believe all fantastic cinema should set out to accomplish. It should leave the viewer with something to chew on, whilst also delivering on telling an original (or at least, creative) story. FARGO excels at this and stands as one of the Coen brothers’ best films!

Grade: A+

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