Room (2016)

★★★★★

Room PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: January 15th, 2016 (UK); January 22nd, 2016 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

Room is a beautiful film. It’s heartbreaking and humorous and touching. It is fearless, it is personal, it is real. It’s also difficult to discuss without making reference to at least one crucial plot point. If you have seen the trailer, you’ll know which reveal I’m alluding to and will hopefully stick around for the subsequent discussion. Otherwise, it would be best to see the film without any prior knowledge and then revisit this review thereafter. Should you choose to do that, just know you are about to see one of the best movies of the year.

It follows young mother Joy (Brie Larson) who has spent years trapped in a grimy shed alongside her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack only knows the shed, christened Room, having been born there. He believes Room is the whole world; she knows it is not. They survive on amenities provided by their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridger) and have a few other basic items such as a bath and a television. “TV persons are flat and made of colours,” Jack marvels, exemplifying his troubling lack of knowledge breadth. He also refers to the toilet as “Toilet” and the lamp as “Lamp”, these inanimate objects having taken on the role of living organisms.

We feel part of Jack’s imagined landscape, its closed-in vastness, established through impeccable production design and crafty cinematography. Mouldy utensils bear foodstuffs that arrive via magic (since Jack is unaware of the outside world, he believes Old Nick’s existence is bred from some sort of sorcery) and stains flood the floor — a large mess near the bed is probably the spot Joy gave birth. Danny Cohen rarely, if ever, captures the entirety of Room in one shot, instead segmenting the area into various micro-locales (the bed, the wardrobe, the kitchen) and this gives off a false sense of capacity. However, when Room feels too falsely spacious, Cohen re-establishes its compactness by intimately honing in on Joy and Jack’s faces.

Joy does everything in her power to shield Jack from Old Nick. Whereas she must grapple with daily pain, her son innocently sees light in abject darkness: “Ma, I’m a dragon,” he exclaims when a lack of powered heating grants him icy breath. Fairy tales have clearly influenced the youngster — Alice in Wonderland and the Biblical fable of Samson are invoked — and these stories take on an even grander meaning given the horrendously isolated context within which they are told. Like his previous film, Frank, this newest offering from Lenny Abrahamson champions the power of imagination; such interactions between mother and son offer fleeting moments of relief, further compounded by the duo’s genuine chemistry.

For someone whose only other screen credit is Smurf’s 2, Jacob Tremblay carries a sense of timing that consistently threatens perfection. His actions reverberate with such authenticity, both in instances of thoughtful restraint and in outbursts brought on by his inability to understand his mother’s truth-telling. The young star’s facial performance is particularly strong: Tremblay is always present and never at all disconnected from the film’s envisioned reality. Hey, you ask for one endearing child performance and then two come along at once — Noah Wiseman is similarly effective in The Babadook, another mother-son tale spun via horror. There is also Ellar Coltrane’s turn in the early parts of Boyhood. So that’s three.

Though fun, awards are far from the definitive benchmarks of quality, therefore to speak of them in such terms is frivolous and, truthfully, a bit demeaning. But I would be doing honesty a disservice if I did not declare my readiness to anoint Brie Larson Best Actress by the 10-minute mark. You instantly see Joy’s exhaustion and feel as though you know her story. Larsen maintains a hunched posture and rolls her eyes with such desperation in the wake of Jack’s childish behaviour. Jack is unaware of the somewhat natural order his mother is trying to uphold (baking a birthday cake, exercising on a frequent basis), which only serves to stab at Joy’s sanity a pinch more.

See, the natural order has been flipped and tortured. Jack’s safe haven is a dark wardrobe, a place we normally associate with childhood fear. Such complexity calls for a smart, concise screenplay and Emma Donoghue answers, exploring reality and surreality with magnificent poise. Given Donoghue has adapted her own novel, such a deep understanding is unsurprising. Her use of words is something to behold; Joy quickly corrects “room” to “space” when referring to Room’s lack of physical area — to Jack, the word “room” means the entire universe, an improper definition that completely undermines Joy’s point. Verbal unpackings such as this further fund Joy’s helplessness, but they also embolden her love for Jack. She is willing to adapt to surreality in spite of her mental anguish.

We do get that exhilarating, terrifying escape sequence and it concludes with a powerfully moving embrace between mother and son, a moment of raw emotional discharge worthy, I think, of any motion picture. The aesthetic thereafter reflects Jack’s disorientation in his new world and Abrahamson takes almost as much time to acclimatise as his young protagonist: lights shine with a confusing haze; movements are jerky; noises are amplified beyond proportion. We patiently watch as Jack tests these new waters and, quite incredibly, it’s a delight: considering we are over halfway through by this point, to watch a character complete rudimentary tasks like walking downstairs and for the film to remain engaging is a testament to the Donoghue’s rich writing.

Without expunging any more detail than necessary, a degree of darkness stalks mother and son into the real world. The film goes to a place that less assured outings would almost certainly have avoided and should be commended for doing so. It is worth noting Joan Allen’s beautifully delicate turn as Joy’s mother, Nancy, opposite Larson and Tremblay — there is so much to admire about Abrahamson’s piece but these central performances ultimately hold the key to its success. Forget saccharine, this is a film thoroughly teeming with earned emotion. Room, at times, floored me.

Room - Brie Larson &; Jacob Tremblay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): A24

Frank (2014)

★★★

Frank PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: May 9th, 2014 (UK); August 22nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As wannabe musician Jon strings together lines so monotonously hilarious in an attempt to spur lyrical inspiration, you get the sense that Frank is about to deliver (just ask the lady in the red coat). And it does deliver to a point. When it strikes a comical chord, the reverberating guffaws tend to be high in pitch and volume. Not to mention the outing’s headline act: a stupendous bodily performance from Michael Fassbender. But there’s something not quite right, a node of irony that occasionally jars indulgently. When wackiness overrules narrative, a handful of disengaging characters remain. Utterly bizarre beyond its frames, Lenny Abrahamson’s outing is as much Talk to Frank as it is Frank Sidebottom.

A keyboard player languishing in his own pit of disenfranchisement, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself taking the faux-piano reigns as part of an eclectic band. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer, his psychedelic sound usurped only by the group’s psychedelic demeanour and his own terminal cartoon-head. At first, Jon is perplexed by just about everything the band has to offer. However, as he is dragged further into their unorthodox make-up by manikin-loving manager Don (Scoot McNairy), the keyboardist remembers his toils as a struggling musician and engages in a game of manipulation and admiration.

Though the antics are told from Jon’s point of view, the titular Frank is wholeheartedly the film’s star and this is in no small part down to Michael Fassbender. Stripped of any ability to facially exhibit emotion (an element quickly acknowledged in a humorous manner) Fassbender suitably readjusts in a display of manoeuvres that are as admirable as they are chucklingly peculiar. Like bees to honey, the band whiz to Frank’s side in a constant plea for attention, particularly Jon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stern Clara. Frank is the cream of the crop to them, both of whom aspire to gain his level of musical insight and, in the same vein, we look to him as the central figure of goings-on.

Fassbender’s vocal expression is intentionally difficult to pinpoint, an element that bolsters the mystery surrounding Frank — it also adds verve to his singing which sees one scene towards the end particularly stand out. It’s not necessarily Fassbender’s face that garners any amount of intrigue — we already know what the Irishman looks like — rather, it’s his character’s motivations. (“What goes on inside that head, inside that head?”) Even then, the reason behind the lead singer’s mask-wearing becomes irrelevant as Fassbender’s actions whilst wearing the head gear become increasingly engaging and unpredictable. A man without a face, but not without allure. Face hidden by a large head, if we didn’t already know it was Michael Fassbender we’d be absolutely certain it was an actor of extraordinary talent anyway.

Despite being too whimsical in dramatic delivery, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is often very funny. From shoddy song creation, to blunt feedback, to hurling objects at one another, there is undoubtedly a plethora of laughs to be had. Though, whilst striving for humour the outing progressively trundles through a sea of perplex. In itself, a film without conventional boundaries is not necessarily a bad film — conversely, though innately different, Valhalla Rising is surreal and still very good — but Frank suffers as it dips in and out of madness, resultantly losing tonal focus. Unless it can be found obscured underneath a papier mâché head, there’s no real on display plot here, not one of intuitive significance anyway. This is the story of a band locked away in a cabin writing an album. The attachment must therefore lie with those on screen and, out-with Frank himself, there aren’t many hooks.

Jon is our mediator of mania; he’s the ‘normal one’ in an abnormal setting. Despite Domhnall Gleeson’s best efforts, the character isn’t all that interesting; an inevitable outcome given those in Jon’s immediate vicinity — a fake head wearer, a wrathful theremin player, a manikin admirer — but the keyboardist is just a tad too plain and subsequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Even when he does generate a semblance of interest, it’s at the expense of likeability: as Twitter followers increase, affinity decreases. Clara presents an even greater problem. She’s dismissive and abrasive and this isolates Maggie Gyllenhaal’s persona. Rather than becoming part of the crazy prerogative, Clara exists disparagingly on the outside. Between plods of hysteria, the film puts all of its eggs into Frank’s basket, a lot for a faceless anomaly to take on. When inadvertently the most amiable presence is one wearing a mask, something ain’t quite right.

On another problematic note, Frank attempts to juggle the trials and tribulations of modernity and music, before incorporating issues of mental health towards the conclusion. We often hear of musicians hiding away in isolation as they congregate ideas for the next album in an attempt to avoid the hyper-connected external world, and this is exactly the case here. Frank and company occupy the confines of a wilderness cabin for months on end, though ironically they’re concealing their music from a non-existent expectancy — nobody knows who they are. Heck, nobody knows how to pronounce the band’s name (Soronprfbs, if you want to have a go) highlighting their incessant need to stand out in an overpopulated industry. The lead singer adopting a giant fake head is probably enough regardless. Jon invariably narrates proceedings via Twitter, a nuance that sears as an unneeded attempt by the filmmakers to make Frank more current. Perhaps those like myself without much musical inclination, other than downloading the latest hit from The Killers or Katy Perry, will struggle to relate to Frank’s attempt at industry irony. Abrahamson’s late bid to relate Frank’s concealment and musical idiosyncrasy with mental instability, though well-meaning, is pillaged by a lack of cohesion.

In response to Jon’s apparent anguish, a bystander confesses, “I thought it was supposed to be funny”. This retortion reflects Frank, a film that is inherently humorous yet unsuccessfully aims for melancholic satire. Are we meant to laugh or cry? I’m not entirely sure. The song plays boldly and certainly hits an occasional high note, but unfortunately suffers from a muddled beat in the long run.

Frank - Frank

Images credit: Movie Review World, Guardian

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures