Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE DISASTER ARTIST.


Directed by James Franco. Starring James Franco, Dave Franco.

The best short form review of THE DISASTER ARTIST is. . . WHY???

And that’s what I kept mumbling to myself throughout this troubling, even repellent copy-cat movie. Why? Why this movie? Why the movie that it’s based on, The Room? And is this movie-about-a-movie—a movie about the making of a movie—as bad as its reputedly bad subject? Indeed, why are we so fascinated by bad movies in the first place? And should we be fascinated by this movie?

Or should that be the point? Maybe it’s a tribute, or deconstruction, or spoof, or indictment not of bad movies, so much as serving notice to us viewers that we have long since ceased to differentiate—or care—between what is good and what is bad? Maybe it’s not about bad movies as about bad audiences.

The time is 1998. Two participants in an acting class meet and decide they will go to Los Angeles in search of acting careers. After no success in landing parts, they decide to make their own movie. It will be scripted by Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and will star his buddy, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). What amounts to a six million-dollar budget produces a movie called The Room that, upon its premiere in 2003, produces gales of derisive laughter that rocks the house. What began as a movie playing in a single theater that made a paltry $1800 has by now become the Worst Movie Ever Made that has to date turned a profit among its cult viewers.

I must say that James Franco portrayal of Tommy is one of the creepiest, even scary roles I’ve seen on screen all year. I kept prodding myself that it’s supposed to be funny, and that the simulations of the Room’s scenes are supposed to be funny. If we assume that Franco’s portrait is spot-on (and according to the side-by-side comparisons of The Room and its look-alike that is indeed the case), then it wasn’t funny at all. And the portrait of Tommy with his lank, shoulder-length hair, explosive outbursts, irrational behavior, and bizarre accent came across as someone dangerous. This is a person teetering on the brink of his own special abyss.

Now, I have since seen some excerpts from The Room. It’s not as gloriously bad as something by Ed Wood. It’s just bland by comparison. I recommend that you watch THE DISASTER ARTIST before venturing into the domain of The Room. That way, you can preserve your own nervous horror at what you’re seeing. And then, after seeing the original, which is pretty tepid by comparison, measure your reactions against the ecstatic responses of its cult followers to the original.

Gus Van Zandt made a shot-for-shot., scene-by-scene reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho. If the point of that exercise was clear to some (it wasn’t to me), then what are we to make of this A-list movie expending its top talents, budget, and crew in simulating to exact detail something as questionable as The Room? Or, I could ask, is it less legitimate to copy a bad movie than it is to copy a masterpiece?

Inevitably, The Disaster Artist will be compared to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Except that the latter film allow us access to the inner melancholy and tragic sweetness of Wood himself. The Disaster Artist keeps Tommy Wiseau at arm’s length. Thank goodness. The only drama here is the very inexplicableness of Tommy, who is so much more bizarre than his movie, The Room. Where does he come from? How old is he? And, above all, where does he get his money? He and his partner, Greg Sesteros, make public appearances to this day. And they’re not telling. Neither does this movie. Foul! I cry. My own answer is that Tommy Wiseau can only be explained if we are allowed to speculate about his extraterrestrial origins. That would make a great science fiction movie, where everybody and everything are Unidentified Flying Objects.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.: A HIGHER JUSTICE



Directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington as Israel, Colin Farrell as George Pierce , and Carmen Ejogo as Maya

“He was drowning in the shallow end of the pool.” What an effective way to describe the plight of Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington). Once a dedicated, but virtually penniless idealistic lawyer, ever ready to defend the downtrodden in the Los Angeles criminal court system, he turns a corner and sells out for the big bucks. Which means he leaves behind a cramped little office and a lifelong ambition to press forward a huge class action suit, and finds himself in the offices of a slick L.A. high-rise, working for a slick boss (Colin Farrell). Drowning .

What happened? After being mugged, and his fortunes reaching a desperate low, Roman takes advantage of an opportunity to turn in a criminal on the run. It’s an illegal move, but it nets him $100,000 on the sly. New suits, a penthouse apartment, and a new job beckon. But his left turn into corruption immediately threatens his life when the imprisoned criminal’s stooges seek him out in retribution. Shaken out of his momentary illicit endeavors, Roman returns the money, leaves his apartment, and prepares to turn himself in. But not before he’s shot dead on the streets.

A higher justice? It falls short of the kind of redemptive fable Joseph (Lord Jim) might have written, but it delivers Roman back to the ideals of his youth. But a fatal price.

Although the film tries to do too much in a short span of screen time—Roman’s fall-and rise is abrupt and unconvincing. But thanks to Denzel Washington, who fairly lives in the role, the film delivers something rare in movies about the law—a tribute to those who labor on behalf of the ideals of law and order. While it lasts, the film is gripping and flows at a satisfying pace. And there’s Denzel’s performance of a man lost in the early idealistic years when he was mentored by a legendary champion of the downtrodden—a rather pathetic figure who shuffles along in his rumpled clothes, stuttering nervously, constantly adjusting his glasses, cursed by a motor mouth that constantly gets him in trouble. He’s something of a savant, gifted with a phenomenal memory for legal minutiae, but hopelessly out of place in the more cynical halls of justice. Another actor might have delivered nothing more than a collection of outward tics and eccentricities. But for Denzel, it’s a chance to tamp down his powerful charisma and work instead from within.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER



Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and starring Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy, Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy, and Barry Keoghan as Martin.

Do we recall the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Sacred Deer?

Late in the film we learn that Dr. Steven Murphy’s daughter has written a paper about the Greek character of Iphigenia. This is an important detail, since it echoes the plot of this film: In variants of the Greek myth, by Aeschylus and Euripedes, Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer in the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis; for which he is ordered in atonement to kill his daughter, Iphigenia.

Indeed, Dr. Murphy is faced with a similar dilemma. He is an affluent heart surgeon with a beautiful wife and son and daughter. Lately, he is the target of a relationship with creepy young Martin, a 16-year old whose father had died under Murphy’s knife during an operation. Martin’s attentions, at first affectionate, soon turn dark when he confronts Murphy with an ultimatum: He charges Steven with the murder of his father; and now he, Steven, must kill a member of his own family as an act of atonement. If he fails to do this, his family will suffer from strange maladies—starvation, paralysis, bleeding from the eyes—until they die

Indeed, both children are afflicted and hospitalized. A battery of tests yield no diagnosis. They come home and are confined to their beds, under the care of their parents. Alarmed by their deterioration, Steven kidnaps Martin, ties him up in the basement, and tortures him against the release of his curse (if that is what it is). Anna, meanwhile, learns that her husband had indeed been responsible for the death of Martin’s father: He had been drunk during the operation and the patient had died. Increasingly distraught, Steven threatens to shoot Martin; but the boy only calmly repeats his charge that it is Steven who is the murderer. If Martin dies, Steven will be guilty of the death of his entire family. The choice as to which family member must die is Steven’s. He gathers them all in the basement, places bandages over their mouths, puts hoods over their heads, and stands in the middle of the room, rifle in hand. Placing a hood over his own head, he circles dizzily round and round, firing three times until he blindly makes a hit. It’s the boy, slumped lifeless in his chair.

The film ends with Steven and his wife and daughter sitting at a café table. A few feet away at the counter sits Martin, his wounds healed. After a few moments of silence, Steven and wife and daughter (who now can walk) leave the room.

At first, the tone of the story is very quiet, the pacing deliberate, the dialogue clipped and in a monotone. As the action unfolds and an underlying tension escalates, a strange selection of musical cues embellish the slow-burning action—Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Bach’s St. John Mass, and works by Ligeti and Gubaidulina. The grim deterioration of the children matches the growing disfunction of the Murphy marriage. It makes for gut-wrenching, even excruciating viewing as Steven works out his frustrations in his torture of Martin and moments of violence against his own children.

Notwithstanding all that however, I must admit that somewhere along the way an absurdist quality creeps into the film’s general tone. How easily, inevitably, I think, its unrelenting seriousness verges on self-parody. We are trapped in our bewilderment, unable to decide which is which—not unlike Steven’s own tortuous inability to make his deadly choice.

Friday, December 1, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: “JUSTICE WRIT LARGE”



Directed by Martin McDonough and starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon; and Peter Dinklage as James.

THREE BILLBOARDS is more notable for what it does not do than what it does. Which is to say, it confounds our expectations at every turn, overturning, reversing, leaving them unresolved. Mildred Hayes is frustrated that a year has passed since the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. The case has gone cold. She resolves to plaster three billboards just outside the little town of Ebbing, Missouri with messages accusing Sheriff Willoughby of negligence in the criminal investigation. As bad as his passive reception of the message is, even worse is the reaction of his deputy, Officer Dixon, whose blatant racism offers only obstruction. At length, she learns the identity of a possible suspect. Vigilante style, she packs her gun and leaves on her revenge mission.

At least that’s what the movie at first glance seems to be about. I watched with growing surprise, delight, and even amusement as the plot insists on defying the very expectation it sets up. Let’s sample some of them: (1. When Sheriff Willoughby enters the story, he seems to be a compassionate, albeit rather reluctant agent on her behalf. But his sudden suicide halfway through the film (he suffers from terminal cancer) brings his help to an abrupt end. (2. Deputy Dixon’s racist obstruction shifts suddenly as a result of being burned in a fire—a fire at the police station started by Mildred—and, newly transformed, he launches an independent investigation on her behalf. (3. Mildred’s culpability in that fire is shielded by a local resident, “James,” a dwarf. Immediately, we imagine a growing romance between him and Mildred. But no, she rebuffs him and he disappears. (4. When Officer Dixon overhears what he thinks is an incriminating conversation by a stranger, subsequent DNA evidence reveals his innocence of that crime (although possible culpability of other crimes). (5. Although the suspect is innocent, Mildred and Dixon leave town, armed, determined to kill him anyway, as if in retribution for his other crimes. But in the last scene they admit ambivalence about their mission: Will they kill him, after all?—maybe, maybe not.

In the final analysis, easy expectations are set up, then abandoned. The movie is impatient of standard revenge genres. And it refuses, ultimately, to consign the little Missouri town to cardboard stereotypes. Life itself, in Ebbing and elsewhere—and even sometimes in the movies—has a habit of eluding our easy grasp.

Moreover, spicing this rabidly violent fable are not only quirky comic elements—not the least of which are Mildred’s incendiary actions against anybody who stands in her way (including her son’s teenaged companions)—but unexpected moments of grace. They include the note that Sheriff Willoughby leaves behind to his deputy, assuring him that he sees a “good man” underneath Dixon’s violent bigotry (an insight that soon will be borne out). The help offered Mildred by James is a beautifully nuanced gesture of compassion and an outreach of love. Dixon’s momentary thought of suicide (he holds his rifle to his head) is overturned by his resolve to help Mildred. And, best of all is a tiny scene that fairly shines like a jewel amidst the darkly convulsive violence and brutality of the little town: As Mildred crouches in sad defeat at the base of the billboards, she has a sudden vision of a beautiful deer just a few paces away. The camera remains tight on her face, as she addressed the creature with a wistful monologue about this unexpected intrusion of grace into her grimy life. It’s one of those scenes that illumines the entire film with its wistful beauty. And it surely will show up at Oscar time when her nomination will be accompanied by that very scene.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS


Directed by Bahrat Nalluri. Starring Dan Stevens as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as John Dickens.


THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS takes its cue from a famous painting by Robert William Buss, “Dickens Dream,” painted in 1870, around the time of Dickens’s death. It shows Dickens in the chair of his study, surrounded by the dream-characters of his novels. The movie likewise surrounds Dickens with his imaginary creations during the throes of his writing A Christmas Carol. This sort of psychic drama can be a tricky thing to bring off, wherein whimsy all too often turns into muddy pretentiousness; but on the whole, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS brings it off, not least due to the whimsical impersonations by the cast members of the imagined characters in A Christmas Carol.

The year is 1843, and after the relative failure of his recent novels, Martin Chuzzlewit and the travel book, American Notes, the 31-year old author is facing a serious slump in his career. With the celebrated Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist already behind him and David Copperfield and Great Expectations yet to come, the need for a comeback compelled by a growing family and accumulated debts is pressing and immediate. And so begins the creation of what would become his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. It celebrates for all time a Christmas that is not so much a solemn religious observance but how we know it mostly today, a festival full of Pagan festivity and charitable brotherhood.


Visualizing the creative process on film is a really dangerous business. How do you penetrate with the camera something so mysterious as the imaginative impulse? Now, as actor Simon Callow, who appears in the movie briefly as Dickens’s illustrator, John Leech, once told me, this is a near-impossible task. In the instance of writing, what can you do, he admitted, when all you have is a person sitting silently in a chair, with pen in hand, a piece of paper before him?—Shoot closeups of the scratching pen? Cut to the writer’s wrinkled brow? Track the words spilling across the page? Etc. Indeed, any moment of creation is essentially sealed off from the probing camera. Isn’t it?

The Man Who Invented Christmas resorts to a kind of meta-cinema. As Dickens prowls the streets and records images and incidents and scraps of overheard dialogue, their imaginative correlatives--Marley, Scrooge, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the Three Christmas Ghosts—spring to life. The world is his storybook and he is merely their auditor. The characters crowd into Dickens’ study; and soon they beleaguer the poor writer with advice, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. “You are the author of this story,” suggests one of them with a sly wink—“aren’t you???"

It’s almost as if Pirandello had taken a left turn from his Six Characters in Search of an Author to A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at age 25. Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
I must confess although there is some charm and wit in this business, I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. Like most creative artists, Dickens didn’t always depend solely on the immediate world around him for direct inspiration. The processes of his writing must have been far more mysterious than that. In some unfathomable fashion, his work came from within. For example, some of his other Christmas stories didn’t depend upon the thronging streets of snow-bound London; rather, he wrote them amidst the sunny climes of Florence, Italy.

But I digress. With a deadline of just six weeks, Dickens has not only to contend with the demands of his phantom characters, he has to put up with the unwonted interruptions of family and professional life, the demands of his creditors, of his children, the intrusion of his neer-do-well father, and the prospect of yet another baby on the way. Moreover, a series of nightmares are plaguing him. They take him back to his dreadful boyhood, when the abandonment of his father forced him to work grueling hours in a London blacking factory. Writing A Christmas Carol reawakens forgotten traumas of a blighted childhood—traumas that would never entirely leave him but would remain unknown to the general public for many years.

But Dickens slogs along and at length comes to the moment when Tiny Tim has died, and the third Ghost takes Scrooge to the graveyard. Full stop. Dickens has insisted Tim must die. And Scrooge must remain unrepentant. Any happy endings and overnight conversions would never do. But a chorus of protests assails him, from characters and family members alike. Even the young Irish maid protests. Dickens holds firm. Things are at a standstill. Only a personal epiphany resolving conflicts with his childhood and with his estranged father will break through the impasse and bring Tim back to life and Scrooge to his redemption.

Am I so cynical to consider that Dickens’ had a point; that maybe his initial instincts for a downbeat ending—at least as the movie tells us—were right?

In closing I greatly admire THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS for its concentration on the novel and the characters of A Christmas Carol. And not, ironically, on this business of movie adaptations, of which there have been confoundingly many. Here, viewers have the opportunity to learn about the book, after all. Indeed, I’d like to think this movie proclaims an essential truth of the matter:

It’s time to READ THE DAMN BOOK. On its own terms.

Friday, November 17, 2017

WONDERSTRUCK: MUSEUM PIECE


Directed by Todd Haynes from the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. Starring Oakes Fegley as Ben, Millicent Simmonds as young Rose, and Julianne Moore as adult Rose.

With a wonderful title like “Wonderstruck,” with its slew of lightning flashes and power blackouts, space music by David Bowie (“Space Oddity”), a pithy epigram by Oscar Wilde (“We all live in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars”), and a literary property by Brian (the wonderful Hugo) Selznick—with all that, you would think WONDERSTRUCK would dazzle and soar.

Sorry, it’s mostly down-to-earth, burdened with a rambling and leaden pace, protracted dialogue exchanges, and an increasingly tedious pattern of shifts between color and black-and-white. Moreover, it’s a kind of museum piece that walks its characters (and us) through an endless succession of dioramas, curiosity cabinets, and table-top displays. Indeed, the conclusion of the film, which reveals its secrets against the backdrop of an enormous tabletop model of New York City, confirms that its characters and their world are nothing more than a collection of cardboard faces and miniature buildings on display. Welcome to the dollhouse.

WONDERSTRUCK weaves together two narratives. One, set in 1977, introduces us to young Ben, who’s recently lost his mother. He runs away from home and goes to New York City in search of his absent father. The second, set a half century earlier, is about a young girl named Rose. She undergoes a similar quest to New York to find an absent parent, in this case, her mother, who turns out to be a silent-movie star going under the name of “Lillian Mayhew.” The first is in color, the second in black-and-white. The first captures the sleazy chaos of Times Square; the second, the tattered charm of a bygone era.
Figuring prominently in both is New York’s Museum of Natural History, the center of much of the action.

How these stories intersect engages our interest—for awhile. But as these children plod their way through their respective storylines, our engagement flags. And it’s mostly due to that blasted Museum, wherein the children, past and present, ramble interminably through the halls and exhibits. And I mean interminably. Director Tod Haynes seems to be his own museum walker, hypnotized by its clutter of worlds.

And it should be noted that a curious paralysis grips the film when the children, who are deaf, attempt to communicate with scribbled notes and clumsy sign language. These interminable dialogue exchanges bring us full stop, and we watch and wait impatiently for the story to move on. I hate to sound unkind, but really, this is a real problem in narrative pacing. By the time the kids’ quests are resolved and united (young Ben learns that he is the grandson of the little girl from fifty years before), the moment is shrouded in the darkness of a New York blackout. And I, at least, sitting in the darkness of the theater, no longer care to look up at the stars. Unlike the lyrics to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—heard several times throughout—wherein “Major Tom” successfully travels to the stars, WONDERSTRUCK never gets off the ground.

True, there are wonderful things here. Haynes’ recreations of New York in 1927 and 1977 are amazing in their wealth of authentic detail. In important ways, the black-and-white sequences of the film successfully evoke the experience of watching a silent film. Haynes’s pastiche of Lillian Mayhew’s films (such as Mayhew’s Child of the Storm) is a dead-on parody of virtually anything by Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford). Haynes extends this effect by conveying in a similar manner much of Rose’s story, providing dialogue titles and non-diegetic incidental music. But even here, the pace slackens, relying too much on Carter Burwell’s oddly jarring collection of non-diegetic pop songs and background music. And may I register a personal note: I can’t stand the rock-music version of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato, which is heard several times. It’s tacky and cheapens events.

In sum, WONDERSTRUCK is a curiosity cabinet whose many drawers and clutter of figures and objects invites us to pause a moment and enjoy the world en miniature. But after awhile, we are impatient, and ready to move on.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: TWO MAGIC KINGDOMS


Directed by and written by Sean Baker and starring Willem Dafoe as Bobby, Bria Vinaite as Halley Brooklynn Prince as Moonee

I emerged from a screening of THE FLORIDA PROJECT confused, disheartened, and angry. I couldn’t shake its disorienting effect. The streets and people outside the theater seemed but an extension of the desperate lives and failed hopes on screen.

That’s the powerful, if disorienting effect this amazing film has on the viewer. It’s a story of two “magic” kingdoms in Orlando Florida. One is Orlando’s Walt Disney World; the other is a nearby slum hotel. They counterpoint each other. The first is a shining Cinderella castle of dreams; the second is its garish parody. Cinderella’s castle is a glorious illusion; the motel is the sordid reality behind that shining curtain. Both lie simmering under the blazing Florida sun.

Among the motel’s collection of drifters, drug dealers, and near-homeless are a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year old granddaughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Mother and child are running wild, from the very beginning of the film, feral creatures in the grip of some sort of desperately manic energy. While the little girl is all arms and legs playing contact sport with the world, the mother is warily negotiating with it. While the child and her little friends wreak damage against the hotel’s power system, sets a nearby abandoned building on fire, and spits and terrorizes the inhabitants, Mom is soliciting the guests of a nearby resort hotel and turning tricks in her room. Presiding over it all is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) a kind and hard-working motel manager who wages a hopeless battle to maintain some semblance of order amidst the surging chaos of the inhabitants.

The steady stream of images, incidents, and fragments of storyline gradually coalesce into a mosaic of mounting dismay and horror. Violence ensues. Halley nearly kills another motel resident who accuses her of prostitution. Police and social workers arrive to take her away and consign her bewildered child to foster parents. The little girl breaks away. She flees to the door of one of her little friends. The moments captured in closeup as she screams and pounds frantically at the door are among this year’s movies’ most agonizing moments. She and her friend escape the motel and bolt through fields and across busy streets to the nearby Disney Magic Kingdom. Desperately, they thread their way through the parking lot and the crowds of thronging tourists. Ahead looms Cinderella’s Castle. They run and run. And then, abruptly, brutally, the screen goes to black. Not even the magical fantasy of Disney can help them now.

Like Sean Baker’s breakout film from a few years ago, Tangerine, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is so real and so vibrant that it hardly seems to be a movie at all. The children, in particular, seem absolutely themselves, not the fabrications of direction, camera and script. Contrasting Dafoe’s stoic and sturdy manner (one of his very best performances) are the amazing portrayals by newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as mother and child. So raw and seething are their roles, I can hardly fathom how they could have been achieved, ironically, by seasoned actors. There’s not a shred of contrivance here, only a raw authenticity that is unschooled and unvarnished.

Both Magic Kingdoms fail their occupants. Both are only a ground zero, a dead end. Cinderella’s Castle is as hollow and useless as its motel counterpart. Viewers of faint heart and cozy fantasies should stay home. Which is a pity, since this is one of the very best movies of the year.