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The Looking Glass

Directed by John D. Hancock

      Karen (Dorothy Tristan), a retired actress, lives alone in small-town Indiana. She's still grieving over the recent death of her daughter, and dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's. In the opening scenes, she's driving to the airport to pick up her Julie (Grace Tarnow), her troubled 13-year-old granddaughter, who's going to live with her for the summer away from her father (Anthony Panzica) and stepmother (Faith Marie). Karen hopes to help Julie get back on the right track and to be happy pushing her to pursue her dreams: she notices her talent for singing, so she takes her to an audition for the town's musical production of "The Looking Glass." Julie is initially reluctant to audition, but she eventually agrees to and gets the part. She also starts dating Anthony (Griffin Carlson), a teenager whom she first meets and flirts with on a local beach. The more she spends time with her grandmother, the more she learns to grow up and overcome her sorrow.

      Screenwriter Dorothy Tristan should be commended for writing a drama that's refreshing because it's warm, touching, old-fashioned, timeless and relatable. It might have a small budget, but it has a big heart. Moreover, it boasts two complex female roles which is very rare nowadays at the movies. The same can be said for the inclusion of an interesting senior citizen because the elderly are usually depicted in Hollywood as caricatures or merely as "old" rather than as complex human beings like Karen. Tristan wisely keeps The Looking Glass grounded in the dynamics of the relationship between Karen and Julie for the most part. Both Karen and Julie grow and affect one another in different ways so that by the time the end credits roll, they've changed in a way that's organic.

      Even when the narrative veers off into another direction, i.e. Julie's romance with Anthony, it still feels true-to-life and not tacked-on. Only a few scenes feel a bit overlong and stilted such as when Karen sit down to talk about her past to Julie in a rather lengthy monologue. Still, you'll be glad to know that The Looking Glass never becomes a melodrama or Lifetime movie-of-the-week. It also avoids relying on narration and flashbacks which would have been distracting. In other words Dorothy Tristan and director John D. Hancock (her husband) trust your intelligence and imagination as an audience member.

      Further enriching the film and keeping it grounded in humanism (a truly special effect; CGI should be merely called a standard effect), are the nuanced, heartfelt performances by Dorothy Tristan and newcomer Grace Tarnow who's not only beautiful, but quite charismatic to boot. Their scenes together are thoroughly captivating and emotionally engrossing because they actually seem like they're actually grandmother and granddaughter. Hopefully, we'll Tarnow will get equally complex roles in the future instead of being pigeonholed into shallow Hollywood roles. At a running time of 110 minutes, The Looking Glass is a tender, well-acted drama brimming with warmth and humanism. Back in the days when dramas were ruling the marketplace instead of the current bombardment of shallow, CGI-infested blockbusters (read: bread and circuses), it would have received a much wider theatrical release.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by First Run Features.
Now playing at Cinema Village.


Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

      Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in captivity inside a 10 foot by 10 foot shed with her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Her captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters the shed every now and then to have sex with Ma. The more that Ma tells Jack about the outside world, the more she's tempted to finally escape the shed, so she and Jack hatch a plan together.

      Room begins in the second act when Ma has already leaves a number of years in the shed since Old Nick had kidnapped her at the age of 17. There's very little sense of the outside world at first except for a small skylight window above them. By throwing you right into the 2nd act, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue provide you with a captivating hook so that you know precisely what the film is about and who the main characters are without having your time wasted. You gradually learn why they're there as the film progresses. The scenes inside the shed capture the claustrophobia and horrors of what it's like for Ma and Jack to be trapped in there---it's as much of a mental trap as it is a physical one.

      The second half of the film feels quite poignant and tender as it shows the aftermath of Ma and Jack's escape and reunion with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) as she struggles to adjust to her new freedom. Many scenes will tug at your heartstrings and cause you to shed some tears, but, fortunately, Room is the kind of tearjerker that genuinely earns its tears. In one particularly well-shot scene, Ma cries upon seeing Jack, but Abrahamson and Donoghue choose to mute out the mother's cries and screams thereby trusting your imagination as an audience member. Had the sounds been shown, it would have been overwhelming; instead it's quietly powerful.

      The heart and soul of Room lies in its heartfelt performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, both of whom are Oscar-worthy. They actually seem like mother and son throughout the film, and the emotions that they convey through their performances are quite palpable. Not since Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam has there been a child actor with as much potential and talent as Jacob Tremblay. Hopefully, he'll get more opportunities to showcase his talents in the future after this breakthrough role.

      Room is also the kind of film that can be seen as an allegory similar to the one about the people chained to a cave wall who venture outside once they become unchained and head toward the sun (enlightenment) in The Republic by Plato. The enlightenment that Ma and, especially, Jack experience upon their liberation can represent any kind of enlightenment that one might experience throughout life. Given that we live in the Age of Stupid or the Age of Technology, perhaps we're all still trapped inside that shed or chained to the cave wall so-to-speak, and we have yet to experience true enlightenment. Ultimately, with its solid writing, directing, editing and acting, Room is one of the best films of the year. Don't be surprised if you'll find it on many Top 10 lists.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

99 Homes

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

      Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father, gets evicted from his family home along with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax). While living out of a motel and struggling to make ends meet, he agrees to work for the very same real estate broker, Mike Carver (Michael Shannon), who had seized his home and evicted him. Little do his mother, son and other evicted individuals living in the motel know that Dennis helps to evict homeowners, many of whom have families and owned their homes for many years.

      99 Homes unfolds much like a thriller and has its fair share of suspense, but along with that it's also character-driven, provocative, profoundly moving and organic. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi deserve to be commended for tackling a sensitive, important and timely issue without resorting to sugar-coating or veering off into unnecessary tangents. Roger Ebert would be proud of Bahrani for co-writing such an intelligent screenplay that remains grounded in humanism. By focusing on the evolving, complex dynamics between Dennis and his greedy boss, Mike, the film remains electrifying from start to finish. Lesser talented screenwriters would have included distracting flashbacks that would explain what happened to the mother of Dennis' child or to Dennis' father for that matter. But, alas, Bahrani and Naderi know better than that: instead, they omit the backstory and exposition while leaving them up to your own interpretation and imagination. Moreover, they avoid painting Mike as a cartoonish villain; he is a human being after all, and a product or perhaps a victim of our poorly and under-regulated capitalistic economy where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If Mike had taken any courses in Economics or Finance, he'd learn what everyone is taught: higher GDP is good. Good for who or whom? It's not good for the economy if growth occurs without including the poor along with it. My very own Finance professor in college said to the class: "Greed is good." and "I like selfishness." Everyone in the class took those statements for granted like the monkeys they they were. I was considering to bring them all bananas on the last day of class, but my conscience got the better of me. Mike would've easily been one of those monkeys had he taken that course. It wouldn't be surprising if underneath his appearance of confidence and strength lies a lot of weakness, shame and sadness, but, again that's up to your own interpretation based on your understanding of human nature. He clearly lost his conscience a while ago while Dennis is in the process of losing his, although you can sense that deep down he's a good person and wants to do the right thing.

      Part of what makes the characters of Dennis and Mike feel so real are the Oscar-caliber, well-nuanced performances by Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. They're both very well-cast and at the top of their game. Garfield sinks his teeth convincingly into a character that's strong yet fragile and vulnerable at the same time. You'll find yourself truly caring about Dennis and feel sorry for him when he goes door to door to evict homeowners. Those scenes are among the most haunting and powerful of film--they're just as heartbreaking as the scenes in Oren Moverman's The Messenger when two soldiers had to go door-to-door to notify families of the death of their loved ones. 99 Homes would probably make an interesting double-feature with The Messenger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Broad Green Pictures.
Opens September 25th at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

Coming Home

Directed by Zhang Yimou

      During the Cultural Revolution in China, Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a college professor, gets sent to a labor camp leaving his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) behind. He escapes the camp three years later near the end of the Cultural Revolution, and attempts to reunite with his family. Unfortunately, his wife suffers from amnesia and doesn't recognize him. His daughter, an aspiring dancer, doesn't greet him warmly at first. He desperately tries to find ways for his wife to start remembering him, but she's convinced that he's someone else entirely. Meanwhile, show goes to the train station in hopes that her husband will arrive from the camp now that the Cultural Revolution is over and political prisoners have been released.

      Based on the novel by Geling Yan, Coming Home is a melancholic drama that touches the deepest recesses of the heart. Screenwriter Jingzhi Zou and director Zhang Yimou do an impeccable job of bringing out those tears of yours in a way that feels organic because everything feels so true-to-life. Yes, it would be safe to call Coming Home a bit depressing at times, but so what? Some of the best films are very tragic and depressing, i.e. Bicycle Thieves. What makes the film exceptional and captivating, though, is that it's brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's hard to find in Hollywood films nowadays. Yimou trusts the audience's patience during the slower paced and quiet moments. His attention to period detail helps to enrich the film along with the exquisite cinematography, lighting and costume design. Even the interesting use of color and music sets the somber atmosphere.

      Beyond aesthetics, although, the film has a lot to say about the strength and value of true love, although it says it without too many words. You can palpably feel the love that Lu Yanshi has for his wife. When it comes to his daughter, though, their relationship is more complex which makes it all the more interesting. It's also worth mentioning the emotionally convincing performances by everyone onscreen, especially Gong Li and Chem Daoming, each of whom finds the emotional truth of their roles. Prepare to be engrossed from start to finish thanks to those top-notch performances, sensitive screenplay and direction. Unless you're made out of stone, you'll find yourself in tears by the end, so be sure to bring a big box of tissues and spend some time afterward absorbing this deeply human, emotionally gripping film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Second Mother

Directed by Anna Muylaert

      Val (Regina Casé) works has worked a live-in nanny for a wealthy São Paolo family, Barbara (Karine Teles) and her husband Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), for the past thirteen years. She cooks and cleans for them, and has taken care of their teenage son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), ever since he was a toddler, so she's like a second mother to him. Ironically, though, Val hasn't quite been around for her own daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who's estranged from her and lives with relatives in Pernambuco. When Jessica arrives to move in with her mother while in pursuit of a degree in architecture, she didn't expect that her mother doesn't have her own home to live in. The more time that Jessica spends there, the more the upper and lower class lifestyles clash with one another, especially when she swims in the family's pool.

      Writer/director Anna Muylaert has woven a tender, moving drama that's grounded in humanism from the first scene to the very last scene. It deals with very relatable, universal topics such as parenting, class struggles, love, compassion, freedom and forgiveness. Muylaert should be commended because not a moment veers into melodrama or too much schmaltz nor does the film get preachy or heavy-handed. It's sweet, warm and uplifting while remaining honest, poignant and true-to-life (with the exception of the brief use of slow-motion in the scene when Jessica swims in the pool for the first time). She also balances the delicate drama with just the right amount of comic relief. Each character is interesting because you can sense they have inner lives. The dynamics of their relationships are also compelling, especially between Val and Jessica. Even though Barbara comes across as not particularly nice when it comes to how she treats her help, she's not one-dimensional or even close to a villain; she's a complex human being who's just treating the lower class like she was raised to do. Perhaps one day she'll look back at the way she treated Val and regret it or maybe not.

      Regina Casé gives a genuinely heartfelt performance that also helps to anchor the film in realism. She brings a lot of charisma, warmth and tenderness to her role. It's quite amazing how she tackles a role that has such a wide variety of emotions in such believable way. You can sense that there's frustration inside Val that she bottles up inside, but the way she deals with it shows how wise and mature Val truly is when it comes to taking finally control of her life. Casé deserves an award for Best Actress come Oscar time. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, The Second Mother is warm, wise, tender and profoundly human. It's an uplifting crowd-pleaser that earns every moment of uplift.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Now playing at The Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center.

Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

      Just as the IMF gets shuts down, rogue agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) learns of a pernicious group of terrorists called the Syndicate who threaten to start a new world order via terrorism. Ethan soon gets captured and chained to a pole before a mysterious secret agent, Ethan (Rebecca Ferguson), rescues him. Meanwhile, CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) gives orders for Hunt to be killed unless he has evidence that the Syndicate actually exists. That evidence, a computer drive listing the names of the Syndicate members, happens to be at a highly secure underwater facility. As IMF analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and computer tech Benji (Simon Pegg) track Hunt down, Hunt, with the help of Ilsa and, eventually, the trusting Benji, desperately try to retrieve the hard drive.

      The plot gets increasingly interesting throughout the film's twists and turns, especially when Ilsa shows up because it's uncertain whether or not she will double cross Ethan. Simon Pegg is very well-cast because he provides the film with much-needed comic relief. Fortunately, Tom Cruise still has the knack of being terrific leading man in an action thriller because beyond being good-looking, he's got charisma to boot and can sinks his teeth quite convincingly into both action and dramatic scenes.

     It's quite a testament to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's strength as a film director that the 5th film in the Mission: Impossible series manages to still be as thrilling, exciting and suspenseful as the last four films. To be fair, though, Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation does lose a little steam toward the end because of too much exposition, but that's a minor issue that's forgivable because there's plenty of action set pieces before and after that to cherish. The stuntwork, largely done by Tom Cruise himself, looks amazing, whether he's hanging onto a plane as it takes off, going through an exhilarating motorcycle chase or trying to unlock a safe underwater with no oxygen mask. That underwater scene alone demands to be seen on the big screen (preferably in IMAX) for a fully immersive experience (pun-intended) so that you can feel like you're right there you're underwater with Ethan as well. At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation is ultimately an exhilarating blend of action, intrigue, suspense and comic relief.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.


Directed by Christian Petzold

      In post-WWII, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer, returns to Berlin after surviving the Holocaust, but now has a surgically reconstructed face because of her injuries. Her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), used to be a pianist before the war, and now works as a busboy at a nightclub called Phoenix. When Nelly meets him, he doesn't recognize her, although he does think that she resembles his wife whom he assumes has died. Matters get complicated when he asks her to pretend to be his wife so that he can collect her inheritance.

    Phoenix combines mystery, suspense, noir and drama in a way that's consistently compelling. Will Johnny recognize Nelly? What might the consequences be if he were to recognize her as his wife? Those questions will keep you at the edge of your seat as the story takes unpredictable twists and turns along the way. Nelly learns a dark secret about Johnny, and her reactions to that, which won't be spoiled here, are even more unexpected. Some of the film feels operatic and a bit stagey, as if you were watching a very interestingly-lit play, though. Morevover, thee third act, ends on a rather disappointing note because it's too sudden and, without enough closure, it leaves you with too many open-ended questions that makes the film feel incomplete.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Phoenix looks precisely like a noir film should with an interesting use of chiaroscuro, colors and set/costume designs. It would really benefit you if you were to see the film on the big screen to better appreciate its cinematography and pay attention to the details. Phoenix's greatest asset, though, is the infinitely talented Nina Hoss who sinks her teeth into the role with aplomb and is quite radiant. She's as good of an actress as Charlotte Rampling, and elevates the film because she convincingly captures Nelly's complex emotions through body language. Phoenix can best be described as a taut, atmospheric, engrossing and slow-burning noir thriller that's often unpredictable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sundance Selects.
Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Inside Out

Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen

      11-year-old Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) lives happily with her mother (voice of Diane Lane) and father (voice of Kyle MacLachlan) in Minneapolis. She and her family soon move to all the way to San Francisco where her father starts a new job. Inside her head, there's Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Anger (voice of Lewis Black), Fear (voice of Bill Hader) and Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling). As Riley has a hard time adjusting to living in a new city, her mixed emotions concurrently struggle to keep Joy from continuing to be the dominant feeling in her mind. Joy and Sadness go on an adventure together as they're ejected from headquarters and must find their way back to the control room before Sadness, Anger and Disgust wreak havoc.

      Smart, funny, thrilling, imaginative, inspired and exhilarating, Inside Out is everything you want a Pixar movie to be, and more. At its core, it has a heartwarming story about a pre-teen going through an emotionally complex moment in her life which anyone can relate to. In other words, she's experiencing what everyone experiences to a certain degree around that age: the mixed, confusing emotions of growing up. That relatability and universality helps to ground the film in humanism. Everything that goes on inside Riley's head feels real, and the same can be said for the brief (and quite witty/humorous) glimpses into the mind of her mother and father. The adventure that Joy and Sadness end up going through are filled with thrills, poignancy and even some clever surprises none of which will be spoiled here. Just like in any truly great animated film, there are many moments for both adults and children to be entertained by and to cherish.

      While the animation certainly looks beautiful and dazzling while providing for plenty of eye candy, the real triumph of Inside Out is that its heart, mind and soul remain intact from start to finish. This is the kind of film that you'll probably love on very different level when you see it an another stage of your life. There's something for everyone to take away from its lessons about the complexities of our emotions and memories, and how it's natural for happiness to come with sadness and other healthy emotions that shouldn't be suppressed. Prepare to be thinking about and discussing Inside Out for a long time after watching it. You might even find it to be therapeutic. At an ideal running time of 94 minutes, Inside Out is destined to become a new animated classic, and it's a potent reminder that we're living a Golden Age of Animation. Preceding the film, there's a very sweet animated musical short entitled Lava, directed by James Ford Murphy, about volcanoes in love.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.
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