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DVD reviews: 'Room' is as good as advertised

I may not have been quite as bowled over by “Room” (2015 / Lionsgate / 118m / $24.99 BR / R) as some of my critical brethren but I can’t deny being impressed by it. Considering its several Academy Award nominations (and a Best Actress win for Brie Larson) you might already know that it concerns a young woman (Larson), abducted while a teenager and forced to have sex with her captor over a period of seven years. She shares a converted garden shed – the room of the title – with her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the product of the ongoing rapes she’s endured and pretty much her only reason for living. She determines that the lad is now old enough to be told some of the truth about their situation – he thinks there is only outer space beyond Room, as he calls it, and what he sees on TV is “not real” – and she engages his participation in a plan for escape. They fake his death and when Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) goes to dump the body the kid runs away, yelling for help. The police determine where the shed is from Jack’s vague clues and liberate the young woman,

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that because that’s only the first part of the film. It is, however, as much as I knew going and perhaps you also thought the successful escape culminated the production. But Lenny Abrahamson’s film, scripted by Emma Donohue from her novel, is as much concerned with the aftermath as it is with the minutiae of the day to day existence of mother and son confined in a tiny space. Both must adjust to freedom in different ways and Ma (Larson’s character is never given a name) has no fewer problems than Jack who now is confronted with an enormous world he never even knew existed – liberation is not the end of the story. Some of this latter half of the film struck me as being a bit on the glib side; there are several aspects to Ma’s adjustment that ought to have been explored more deeply. The question of why Ma kept Jack, who is after all the product of rape, is raised but not addressed for instance. This doesn’t seriously mar the film and substantial compensation is to be had from an intense performance from Larson and a truly impressive one from young Tremblay. Joan Allen and William H. Macy also contribute notable supporting turns. “Room” is a film you should not miss.

It falls to the only classic film in this week’s batch to provide any other superior viewing experience. Despite its rural setting, Delmar Davis’ “The Red House” (1947 / The Film Detective / 100m / $14.99 BR / NR) is definitely a film noir with secrets involving murder and sexual obsession. The look of films noir – the shadow-drenched lighting, the eccentric camera angles – derived from the Hollywood horror films of the 1930s, which in turn derived their look from the often grim German Expressionist films of the 1920s. (Not surprisingly many of the same directors and technicians worked on all three.) There are a few instances where horror films of the 1940s adapted nourish plot elements and a few noirs were practically horror films. One such case is “The Red House,” written (from a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain) and directed by Daves. Edward G. Robinson turns in a terrific performance as farmer Pete Morgan, who has an unhealthy interest in his adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). When Pete takes on young Nate (Lon McAllister) to help out with chores the plot thickens fast. Nate insists on taking a short cut home through the woods, which Pete insists is dangerous at night, particularly in the area around a red house that is haunted by some sort of screaming spirit. Meg meanwhile is showing decided romantic interest in Nate and Pete’s sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) is increasingly concerned about her brother’s behavior … and with good reason.

Writer/director Daves is primarily known for his westerns; his films are technically proficient (he was fond of elaborate crane shots) but otherwise undistinguished (and some of his last films, such as “Spencer’s Mountain” are just downright bad). The wonder, then, is that this film is so very, very good. Of course, with actors such as Robinson and Anderson (who may be just a tad too patrician for a farmwoman) you’re halfway home. Still I’m tempted to hand much of the credit to cinematographer Burt Glannon because it’s the mood that makes this bit of American Gothic work. Though there’s little doubt from early on that the dark forces here are not of a supernatural nature that doesn’t keep Nate’s walk through the woods at night from being a tense and terrifying piece of footage. It’s also a remarkably beautiful one thanks to the moonlight dappling through the windswept leaves (kudos to the sound design here as well) and that is more due to Glannon than Daves. Given that most copies of this public domain title have looked terrible – with some scenes so plunged in murk you can’t tell what’s happening – it’s lovely to have a gorgeous print to watch. Hats off to the Film Detective for another terrific restoration now on Blu-ray but originally made for their DVD release of a few years back – and more recently included on their noir collection reviewed here a couple months back.

Rampant confusion is the order of the day with “Exposed” (2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 102m / $19.99 BR / R), a movie that plays for most of its length like two that have no relation to each other (more about that later). On the one hand, we have Keannu Reeves investigating the murder of his partner who turns out to have been not only a very dirty cop involved in drug trafficking but a serial rapist as well – and one apparently indifferent to the sex of his victims. On the other, there’s a young woman, Isabel (Ana de Armas), experiencing bizarre visions of what she thinks are angels and finding herself miraculously pregnant though her husband has been on a tour of duty in the Middle East for a year. There’s a possible third thread involving a young Dominican butcher and his pit bull. Yes, everything comes together at the end (sort of) but it’s a long, tedious and incomprehensible slog to get there. There are lengthy scenes of banal dialogue that go nowhere and other scenes that simply happen with no explanation. On the latter score, there’s a sequence of many people wailing away in church that comes so soon after the pooch is run over by a delivery van that it’s not apparent until sometime later this is the soldier’s funeral not the dog’s.

Mira Sorvino portrays a character whose personality changes from scene to scene; at one point, she’s screaming at Reeves that he’s worthless and nobody likes him, and when we next see her, she’s getting all romantic with him. She defends her late husband as a good cop at one point then spills her guts that he told her all about the drugs and rapes later. Isabel goes from schoolteacher to waitress with no explanation and rescues an abused little girl (and hides her in her bedroom) in a subplot that comes out of nowhere and returns to same. Reeves has never been renowned for his acting chops but he hits a new low here as he sleepwalks through the murder investigation that supposedly obsesses him. It remains for de Armas (finally graduated from the Eli Roth drek she has recently been seen in) to deliver something in the way of an impressive performance. Unfortunately this crapfest is no better than “The Green Inferno” or “Knock Knock.” Reportedly the film was originally quite different but Lionsgate was under the impression they were going to get a Reeves police procedural thriller and decided to re-edit the originally much longer film about a woman who sees angels into this. The original may not have been a masterpiece but if that’s true they have only themselves to blame for this mess.

It’s less easy to define what’s amiss about “The Hatching” (2015 / Lionsgate / 91m / $19.98 / R) but it may be that humor about UK rural types just doesn’t travel well. Or it may simply be that this exercise about crocodiles on the loose in the moors just isn’t very funny. A prologue has three boys make a midnight visit to a croc hatchery to steal some eggs. One doesn’t survive and Tim (played as a grownup by Andrew Lee Potts) – who drops his eggs as he flees – is so disturbed by the resultant press furor that he moves away. Fifteen years later, he returns to take over his late father’s business. At just this time the crocs hatched from his abandoned eggs start chowing down on the locals after having apparently lain dormant for a decade and a half. There’s not much more to the plot than that until possibly halfway through when a wrinkle involving non-reptilian skullduggery is introduced – or should I say rudely shoehorned into the proceedings? Much time (way too much time) is given over to a pair of youthful lamebrains who head off to the marshes to get stoned with their girlfriends (one of whom gets eaten) and quite inadvertently (not to mention unbelievably) manage to kill off one of the beasties. I’d been in hopes they’d get devoured as well but these two chuckleheads make it to the end credits. One nugget of true humor occurs at the end when the townspeople form a posse that substitutes Sealyham terriers for bloodhounds. That’s as close as the film gets to tipping its hand that it’s a comedy, and you may not make it that far before giving up on this limp offering.

Better genre – the western in this case – entertainment can be found with “Forsaken” (2015 / Momentum Pictures / 89m / $32.98 BFR / R) though terming Jon Cassar’s film better than alright is an exaggeration. Prodigal son John Henry Clayton (Keifer Sutherland) returns home after service in the Civil War and a subsequent period as a gunslinger to be greeted with less than open arms by his preacher father (Donald Sutherland). Dad just can’t understand where he and his late wife went wrong with the boy that he should have so much hatred in him. Sonny explains late in the proceedings that after the war he thought he was done with killing but it wasn’t done with him (a nice poetic turn of phrase that really explains nothing); but he’s not currently wearing guns and vows he’s through with his quick-draw days. However it seems that a nogoodnick is intent on buying out all the landowners, and his minions will happily murder anyone who refuses to sell. I’m sure you can see where this is going as the plot has been a staple for oaters since the silent days and William S. Hart. John Henry keeps to his promise despite several shellackings from the thugs but when his father is attacked it’s time to renege. There’s a nifty twist near the end, but aside from the first father/son onscreen pairing of the Sutherlands – who have several nice scenes together – there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Demi Moore has a nice supporting role as John Henry’s abandoned sweetheart. It’s all well done but familiar and predictable.

A competent production is also on hand with “Out of the Inferno” (2013 / Lionsgate / 107m / $19.98 / PG-13) a Hong Kong mash-up of “The Towering Inferno” and “Backdraft.” On the hottest day of the year an HVAC malfunction sets a skyscraper ablaze. Firefighting brothers struggle to save as many lives as possible – one from the inside (having just opened his fire protection business) and the other on the outside (still on the force but having just handed in his resignation). That’s pretty much it so far as a plot goes, but of course in exercises such as this one all that’s required is a set up for the effects work and situations that may or may not reduce the size of the cast of characters. My viewing companion remarked that at least they were characters you could care about, but I can’t say I shared her opinion; I found myself pretty indifferent as to who lived and who didn’t. The practical effects work is pretty spectacular, but the CGI is often a tad obvious. In its favor, the pace never lets up, so the film is an agreeable time-waster with the novelty – for Western audiences at any rate – of a more exotic setting than usual (Oriental filmmakers are quite fond of the blazing high rise genre). It’s – again – very well done for what it is, but what it is isn’t all that much.