Monday, December 11, 2017

[Review] The Disaster Artist

"Is it just me, or is this kinda bad?"

Ah, Tommy Wiseau's The Room -- it's been hailed as the best worst movie of all time, reaching cult status and provoking conversational setpieces. To this day, it has frequent midnight showings in theaters across the world, cementing its spot in cinematic history -- so much so that the all-over-the-place James Franco has now made a movie about the making of the movie. It's fittingly called The Disaster Artist, and it's genuinely hysterical.

Franco plays Tommy Wiseau -- when we first meet him he's shouting and climbing up walls during an acting class. That's where he sparks up a complicated friendship with an aspiring star named Greg (Dave Franco), and the two head out to Hollywood. From there, the film dives into story behind The Room -- from script, to tumultuous production, to head-scratching red carpet premiere.

The important thing to note about The Disaster Artist is that it isn't a parody or a spoof -- it's a passionately realized portrait, serving as a fascinating look into the weird world of Wiseau, as well as an amusing behind-the-scenes tribute to the infamous disasterpiece. It strikes a balance between surprisingly somber and relentlessly comical. In fact, it's very very funny. I hooted. I hollered. And it's well-crafted enough to the point where people can probably enjoy it without having seen the material that inspired it. But I'll be real with you -- it is indeed best if you have seen The Room, or at least clips of its most iconic scenes.

A big part of why The Disaster Artist works so well is James Franco's pitch-perfect and deeply dedicated performance as Tommy Wiseau. It's more than just a good impression. He portrays him as earnest, ambitious, shameless, bizarre, mysterious (no one actually knows where he's from, how old he is, how he funded the movie, or what the heck is going on with his accent), oblivious, unintentionally hilarious, sympathetic, and villainous all at once. The supporting cast is solid too, including the likes of Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Nathan Fielder, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Jacki Weaver, and more. I'll keep the cameos a secret.

What could've been a one-note romp becomes something much more substantial as it espouses themes about dreams, the unconventional and independent spirit, artistic merit, failure and success, and director's intent vs audience reaction (Are they laughing with you or at you?). It also further examines how The Room is the ultimate recipe for an accidental phenomenon, why people have latched onto something so uniquely bad, and why it's achieved such a lasting legacy. One thing's for sure -- The Disaster Artist wouldn't exist without it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

[Review] Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The great Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (there's a lot of punctuation in that title), a steadfast character study and litigation drama that never quite rises above its courtroom constraints.

Roman Israel (Washington) is a devoted defense attorney and activist with a grassroots past. In order to keep his career afloat, he joins a big-time law firm led by one of his former students (played solidly by Colin Farrell). From there, his values are greatly tested when he takes on the messy case of a murdered store clerk.

To no one's surprise, Denzel Washington is excellent here (seriously, would you expect anything less?), playing a character that is as quippy and sharp as he is vulnerable and conflicted. That said, the role is never as hard-hitting as his Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Fences. In fact, I would have liked to known a lot more about this character, but unfortunately the film's oblong pacing, wordy and procedural disposition (there's a lot of typing and talking on the phone), episodic story turns, and lack of narrative momentum hinders us from ever gaining a deeper understanding of Roman Israel beyond the surface.

An intriguing twist pops out of the briefcase in the last act, throwing a major dilemma at our protagonist, but by that time, it just feels too late -- like this is the moment when the film should just be getting started. And the abrupt ending attempts to provoke some emotion, but it comes off more as an unsatisfactory head-scratcher. All of this leads me to believe that this film probably would've worked well as a TV series instead of a two-hour portrait -- just look at "Better Call Saul"!

( 6/10 )

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Monday, December 4, 2017

[Review] Better Watch Out

Ah, nothing like a Christmas horror movie hybrid to ring in the holiday spirit. That's what Better Watch Out does -- it's a gleeful and twisted home alone/home invasion thriller, and I'm not talking about Joe Pesci or Santa.

Set on an unassuming suburban street, strung with Christmas lights and crawling with carolers, one night Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is called upon to babysit a 12-year-old boy named Luke (Levi Miller), who's hopelessly in love with her and planning to impress. Things go awry fast when they start receiving threats from mysterious intruders. And, well -- to avoid spoilers -- I'll leave it at that.

If you can get past some of the awkward humor at the beginning, this turns into a fun, creepy, intense, shocking, and even dark holiday spectacle. Better Watch Out is a film that goes all the way Christmas and all the way horror (that's the way to do it, right?). It also shares some similar traits with the campy teen-horror movie The Babysitter, which debuted on Netflix this year. And speaking of Netflix, Dacre Montgomery (Max's sleazy older brother Billy from "Stranger Things") makes an amusing appearance here.

Anyway, the story delivers its tropes with a winking eye -- from the eerie foreshadowing to the screechy jolts to the jarring jumps -- but it also subverts them with some You're Next-like twists. All the while, it's backed with catchy and well-selected Christmas songs (including "Merry Christmas [I Don't Want to Fight Tonight]" by the Ramones) that contrast the deranged events and the film's deep plunge into an MA-rating (yeah, this isn't very family-friendly). So if you're in the mood for something on the naughtier side this December, make Better Watch Out the one.

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

[Review] The Man Who Invented Christmas

We all know the story of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol quite well with its countless renditions and seminal splendor. But what about the conception of the novel itself? That's what this year's The Man Who Invented Christmas gazes into. The film is a cheerful and tidy portrait of the creation of the classic book -- from life, to brain, to pen, to paper, to presses -- and the rest is history.

Dan Stevens (The Guest, Beauty and the Beast) plays Dickens. He's presented as a likable if quirky and sometimes reserved fellow. As he struggles to come up with an idea for his next novel, the plot follows him through the writer's block and sleepless nights, the skepticism and pushback from his peers ("A Christmas ghost story?!"), and of course the glorious bells of inspiration.

This is a film that you watch with a smile on your face, especially if you're a fan of the timeless source material. It's stuffed with pleasantries, it has a delightfully old-fashioned essence to it, and it features a charming performance from Dan Stevens (I wonder if the actual Charles Dickens was this dashing?). It's also quite fascinating to see how the things that unfold in Dickens' real life parallel and influence characters, settings, situations, and themes in the book -- even some of the spookier stuff. And once the ink really starts flowing, the film takes on a bit of a whimsical quality, as the characters begin to appear right alongside Dickens in his writing room, including Scrooge himself (played by Christopher Plummer).

In the end, The Man Who Invented Christmas won't necessarily deliver any new surprises or bring about life-changing epiphanies, but it's still a nice look at a famous story from a different angle, and it'll probably help you get into the Christmas spirit this season.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

[Review] Wonder

With his latest film Wonder, writer-director Stephen Chbosky (best known for The Perks of Being a Wallflower) once again exhibits his compassion for the experience of youth and what it means to find your way in the world, as difficult as it may be. This time he focuses on one of the harshest and most emotionally brutal places on Earth: the hallways of an elementary school.

The story revolves around Auggie (played by Jacob Tremblay, who made waves in the Oscar-nominated Room). He's a Star Wars fan and aspiring astronaut. Oh yeah, and he was born with a facial deformity. 27 surgeries and several years of homeschooling later, he's embarking on the lofty mission of beginning 5th grade at a big school. But it isn't an easy liftoff for him, as he deals with endless stares, name-calling, and bullies (there are some heartbreaking scenes here). We follow him through the ups and downs as makes his mark and opens the eyes and hearts of many.

This is material that could've been majorly sappy, manipulative, and straight-up cheesy -- but it's so watchable, likable, and well-intentioned that it's worth rooting for and embracing. I'm not saying it doesn't get schmaltzy, but it's a good kind of schmaltz -- if you know what I mean. The film also does something interesting with its narrative. Instead of just sticking to Auggie's point-of-view, it switches to the other people in his personal solar system, which adds dimension to these characters and stresses the importance of connections and the ways we impact each other's lives (and vice versa).

The supporting cast is a solid one -- including Julia Roberts as a warm but stern mom, Owen Wilson in cool dad mode (or so he thinks), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) as a hip and caring teacher, Mandy Patinkin as the school's stoic principle, as well as Auggie's sister (played by Izabela Vidovic) and his on-and-off-again new best friend (Noah Jupe).

When it comes down to it, Wonder understands that everyone is fighting their own battles, whether it's on the inside our outside. And its message is simple, agreeable, and universal: Be kind.

( 7.5/10 )

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