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Director: Tom McCarthy

Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Stars: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber

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Release date: January 28th, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 129 minutes


4½/5

Writer/director/character-actor Tom McCarthy has had a topsy-turvy career chock-a-block with unique choices. From festival hits The Station Agent and The Visitor to Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler, no two projects are the same. His most recent Oscar contender, Spotlight, is the complete opposite of The Revenant, The Big Short, Carol…essentially, everything else up for consideration this season.

Spotlight is a journalism drama/detective-thriller harking back to the old-school style of filmmaking (All the President’s Men, especially). Built from the ground up, the project, thanks to McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer, braves the backlash to discuss one of the past decade’s most arresting true stories. The plot follows The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team – the United States’ oldest operating print investigative-journalism division. The team – comprised of Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James) – drop everything to investigate cases of widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic Priests throughout Massachusetts.

Make no mistake; this story needed to be told. The events depicted in Spotlight earned the team the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Yes, this subject matter may deter audiences until its inevitable Netflix release. However, this docudrama deserves the big-screen treatment over January/February schlock. This is the perfect example of a terrific story treated respectfully thanks to talented writers, director, and performers. The team’s movements – watched over by editing staffers Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee, jr. (John Slattery) – look and feel organic. Delving into the pen-and-paper, early 21st Century world of journalism and truth-seeking, each action and reaction is etched carefully into every awe-inspiring frame.

The screenplay and direction combine succinctly, creating a restrained and subtle insight into some of the past century’s most harrowing events. McCarthy’s direction makes a point without ever beating you over the head. Each major twist and turn interweaves efficiently, blending together the investigation, significant political events (9/11), and the characters’ backstories. Aided by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy’s vision makes for a mise-en-scene/attention to detail lover’s dream. Above all else, its screenplay adds enough humanity and personality to every scene – making the most difficult events seem relatable. Depicting victims, conspirators, and everyone in between, it’s hard to fathom just how accurate and necessary this docudrama is (and will hopefully remain).

The cast adapts to McCarthy’s style, their true-to-life counterparts, and confronting subject matter with aplomb. Keaton, coming off a career-best performance in Birdman, is a charismatic force as a leader stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ruffalo and McAdams deliver lively impressions of their enthusiastic and determined real-life counterparts. Character-actors Schreiber, Slattery, James, and Stanley Tucci commit to consequential roles.

Spotlight will make you angry, highlighting just how evil the Catholic Church became over several decades (without hindrance!). This docudrama is a tight, taut, and detailed insight into journalism, a devastating socio-political issue, and a community in tatters.

Verdict: Necessary and impactful viewing.


Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writer: Emma Donoghue (screenplay and novel)

Stars : Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy

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Release date: January 28th, 2016

Distributor: A24

Country: Canada, Ireland 

Running time: 117 minutes


4/5

Room, not to be confused with cult-flop The Room, is a masterclass in single-setting, survival-thriller filmmaking. Compared to everything else blockbuster and Oscar related from 2015 (favouring spectacle slightly over substance), it is one of the more down-to-Earth big-screen experiences.

This drama is certainly not for the faint-hearted, dealing with subject matter the greater population chooses to ignore. The plot revolves entirely around Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay)’s relationship. Confined to a single room, the two form a cohesive dynamic over an extended period. Later, as a sinister figure enters the room every night, the film reveals the full extent of their situation.

Room, like the other Oscar contenders this year, chronicles a relatable character trapped in a nightmarish situation. Based on screenwriter Emma Donoghue’s book, the story runs parallel to confronting new stories from the past decade. The titular space only takes up the first half, with Joy and Jack adapting to their predicament. Their behaviour – acknowledging everything within the room, Joy teaching Jack about the world outside, Jack’s development shifting from open-book toddler to hard-to-control child – all adhere to reality. The room becomes a being in itself, with the TV, bathtub, skylight, and kitchen key character traits.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank) has zero intention of making the same movie twice. Room, although more confronting and visceral than you would imagine, takes a sharp turn in the second half. After Joy and Jack’s escape from imprisonment, Abrahamson bravely balances plot and theme with strong emotional heft. As Jack discovers the intricacies of this big, blue marble, Joy suffers severe, disarming cases of PTSD, malnutrition, and depression. As her mum, Nancy (Joan Allen), dad, Robert (William H. Macy), and step-dad, Leo (Tom McCamus) step in, Joy and Jack are torn asunder by shocking spiritual, physical, and psychological hurdles. For they and us, it becomes almost too hard to cope.

Room, unfortunately, has several difficult-to-ignore inconsistencies and false notes. In particular, the score comes in at inopportune moments – drowning out dialogue and trying too hard to tug the right strings. However, Room also delivers the best set piece of 2015 – as Jack, initially shocked by seeing the outside world in person, pretends to be dead, jumps out of a pickup truck, and rushes for help in the space of a few seconds. It’s performances are similarly exhilarating, with Larson a she-in for this year’s Best Actress gong. Tremblay is a treasure, exuding equal amounts of charm and grief in every frame.

Room makes for a confronting experience, hitting close to home whilst finding the light within the darkness. Its tender craftsmanship proves less really is more in Oscar-season entertainment.

Verdict: A heart-breaking ode to the human spirit.

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