James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

For someone whose birthdate, nationality, and endless source of funds are an enduring mystery to this day, Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of the 2003 self-financed film The Room strikes me as essentially guileless. What you see is what you get. And what you get is…quite strange. From his pallor to his dyed, jet-black hair to his uneasy laughter in an ineffable accent, Wiseau is a living cartoon vampire whose most enduring mark on the world has been to make his very best impression of a Hollywood film, which ticks every box that he thinks a film needs to tick. Johnny (Wiseau) is a young bank manager who seems to have it all. Great friends like Mark (Greg Sestero), a great girl like Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a great betrayal when the two start sleeping together behind his back, and a series of additional random high-stakes subplots that are introduced and dropped without further ado. This is pure melodrama, and I must emphasize that what makes this film work so well is that – with the singular exception of Mike Holmes, who mugs horribly at the camera about his “underwears” – all of these actors are playing this horrendous and overwrought material completely straight. When criminal Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) threatens wayward, youthful creep Denny (Philip Haldiman) at gunpoint in a dispute over missing drug money (on a rooftop for some reason), they play it as straight as day players on Law and Order hoping to put together a convincing highlight reel. When Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) pauses a monologue about a real estate dispute with her brother with a surprise announcement that she has breast cancer, you feel it as surely as daytime TV. And you continue to feel it when the credits roll, along with a nagging realization that these events are never resolved or discussed again in any way. The Room is a bizarre, meandering film, and its saving grace is a lead and script whose ineptitude is only matched by its sincerity.

So what do we make of this film, in which young actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) becomes friends with Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), and – in the act of writing the book that inspired this film – repeatedly violates Wiseau’s oft-spoken admonition not to discuss him behind his back? Is this a memoir, or a polemic? Is it a tribute, or a betrayal? After I watched the film’s trailer, which consisted of repeated attempts to film a wonderfully bizarre rooftop scene, I went in with a question in mind: who exactly is this movie for? Would this be a mere celebration of Hollywood and filmmaking, like The Artist or Hugo or [literally hundreds of other films]? Or is it an exhibition of nostalgia, intended purely for superfans of The Room? I’m thinking here of something akin to Cary Elwes’ memoir, As You Wish, which consists of 273 pages of saccharine anecdotes from the set of The Princess Bride (including the time he and the entire cast got the giggles from André the Giant cutting a thunderous fart during a scene that they had to play seriously) – less a cutting exposé, and more a parallel novel with a likely dollop of fan-fiction, neither offering any grand insights on the filmmaking process, nor particularly sullying the nostalgic glow that surrounds a beloved film. Something nice, but thoroughly inessential. The answer I came up with is that it pretends to be the former, but it is definitively the latter. This is an indulgence akin to Ed Wood, a thoroughly entertaining film which holds little appeal without prior familiarity with the featured director. It ends with a completely unnecessary credits sequence of side-by-side comparisons between Wiseau’s film and Franco’s recreations, which we’ve already seen throughout the film. I didn’t need this, but I wanted it. Make no mistake, I was delighted by this film, but it is fundamentally a parasitic – or perhaps symbiotic – work that feels less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats.

The early scenes between the brothers Franco – attending acting classes, acting out a scene in a diner, discussing their frustrated dreams of the silver screen – are easily the film’s strongest. Wiseau’s bizarre antics are nearly indistinguishable from those of his character Johnny, and the elder Franco’s performance, as well as his burgeoning friendship with the younger Franco’s Sestero, is simply outstanding. It is this friendship that forms the sole emotional core of the film that is not nostalgia-driven, and it largely works throughout the film, as do both performances. The only time that James Franco’s performance crosses over into imitative, SNL territory is during the recreated scenes from The Room, where he is no longer playing a character, but rather, trying his very best to match the exact cadence and camera-work of Wiseau. This duplicative puppet show plays a bit like a pair of Highlights for Children pictures where I’m invited to spot the differences. James Franco matches the closest, but some of the others are eerily spot-on as well. Dave Franco’s version of Sestero is such a close, and yet slightly wrong match for the actor that he looks like a mo-capped video game cutscene – uncanny valley territory. That weirdness is less of a problem with the other actor-characters, such as Juliette Danielle/”Lisa”, Philip Haldiman/”Denny”, and Dan Janjigian/”Chris-R”, played by Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron respectively. The 2017 actors are nearly unrecognizable in their wigs, and have much less to do in the film, and as such, they don’t seem to feel quite so much pressure to be carbon copies of their 2003 counterparts. Efron-as-Janjigian-as-Chris-R (still with me?) is a particularly delightful psychopath.

Carolyn Minnott/”Claudette” (Jacki Weaver), who has just passed out due to a lack of air conditioning or water during a particularly hot and egotistical day on set, makes a trite observation that the worst day on a film set is still better than the best day anywhere else. This may well be an authentic quote, but it’s also the closest that the film comes to acknowledging that “magic of Hollywood” fluff from the other films I mentioned. And there’s perhaps a bit of intended irony here, because Wiseau is certainly depicted as abusing these actors a bit. Hitchcock abusing Tippi Hedrin, this is not – although that relationship does get a shout-out in the film – but there’s definitely a minor, timely depiction of actors (particularly female actors) being sacrificed on the altar of their director’s ego. The conflict comes to a head as Wiseau is about to film a bizarre and overlong sex scene with Danielle, and he struts around naked (wearing only the standard-issue Hollywood dick-sock), defending the need to show his ass in the film (“to sell movie!”), and screaming that Danielle’s body looks disgusting (because he spots a bit of acne that will probably not be visible to the side-by-side film and HD cameras). DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) engages in a bit of masculine bravado, threatening that Wiseau is “a dead man” if he should ever disrespect Danielle again. Smadja is fired, then not fired, Sestero tries to calm his friend down, and Danielle – consummate professional, or perhaps just afraid of getting fired herself – says repeatedly, “I’m fine – can we just do the scene, please?” This scene was a monkey-fight at the zoo, and honestly, I have no idea if I believe it went down this way or not. This is about as unlikable as the character Wiseau ever gets in the film, and while it has a lasting impact on his relationship with Sestero, I honestly found it too shallow a conflict to really affect my image of Wiseau as an earnest and mostly amiable weirdo. Much of the conflict with Sestero stems from a “best bud vs. girlfriend” dynamic featuring Dave Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie in an utterly insubstantial role, and despite how well the Franco brothers play this friendship, none of this felt like it mattered all that much. James Franco can get into multiple shouting matches with every guest-starring comedian in this film, and all the while, I’m just thinking, Franco – and Wiseau – are the bosses of their respective sets. They are the money, they make all of the decisions, and we’ll get a movie out of this no matter what. We don’t spend enough time with any of the other characters to know or care about their feelings on the situation, and there’s fundamentally very little at stake here. In retrospect, my judgment of Wiseau as guileless starts to feel more like a cop-out, designed to avoid admitting that I learned very little of substance about the man from a film that is supposed to be his biopic.

Perhaps I’m asking too much here. I took two full weeks to write this review, partially because of a Thanksgiving vacation, and partially because I was unsure if it’s okay to enjoy an indulgent, pandering film if I’m the one that’s being pandered to so effectively. The film ends with Wiseau at his premiere, Sestero back as his reluctant friend, and the audience giving a biopic-standard round of applause for the film and its subject (perhaps not for the reasons he intended), and of course, my real-life audience did the same. Wiseau drives past the premiere twice in a limousine full of an excessive amount of The Room swag (the very same swag was in the theater with us as well) – his ideal red carpet premiere containing a generous sidewalk crowd, as one more box that his film needs to check. And in the end, I’m happy to acknowledge that any love I experienced for this film is inextricably tied to my love of The Room – love that I at least believe that Franco shares on some level. If The Disaster Artist feels like anything, it’s a sequel and spiritual successor, and perhaps that’s enough. And as the credits roll, and I watch the two films side-by-side like the post-modern, tech-addicted weirdo that I am, my inexorable conclusion is: Fuck it, let’s indulge.

Hi doggie! You’re my favorite customer. I did NAHT.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Advertisements

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #71 – “True Story” (dir. Rupert Goold)

Poster for "True Story"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel learn more about the mystery of Christian Longo and Michael Finkel than they ever wanted to. Enjoy the intense and inexplicable bromance that ensues as we reflect on whether or not strong performances from James Franco and Jonah Hill can redeem such a deeply uncomfortable film (29:20).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is…the movie’s trailer. Not much soundtrack to be had in this film.
  • Bart Layton‘s 2012 documentary, The Impostor, is a movie we’d recommend over this one (in fact, we did!) – and it is indeed on Netflix streaming as of this writing.
  • Apropos of nothing, here’s a link to Rob Cantor‘s performance of “Shia LaBeouf” Live. As we said… it’s delightful, and will change your life.

Listen above, or download: True Story (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #63 – “The Interview” (dir. Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg) (bonus episode)

Poster for

Glenn and Daniel just couldn’t resist shooting their mouths off in the face of two regimes – both Kim and Rogen/Goldberg. Tune in for this special end-of-the-year bonus episode as we discuss The Interview, the Sony hack, the DPRK regime, and whether it was really all worth it. You already know the answer, but it’s a fun conversation nonetheless (24:55).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: N/A out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is Katy Perry‘s “Firework”. Duh.
  • You can find metsuken‘s comment in the Asian-American subreddit – we only discussed a portion of it, but it’s a good read overall.

Listen above, or download: The Interview (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – A rare species of intelligent blockbuster

Poster for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Spoiler warning: This review will reveal plot details that appear in the film’s trailer.

It’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity. Ostensibly, this film is a prequel/reboot of the original Planet of the Apes, but it feels – with the exception of some slightly obnoxious callbacks – like a standalone film. The premise is rather similar to the film adaptation of I Am Legend. In his arrogant rush to cure a debilitating disease (in this case Alzheimers), [Dr?] Will Rodman (James Franco) develops a drug that triggers neurogenesis – the repair and creation of brand new neurons in the brain. When this drug is tested on our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, a slew of Unforeseen Consequences™ ensue.

The majority of the film is told from the perspective of Caesar, another brilliant simian team-up from motion-capture dynamo Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson’s team at Weta Digital. This is the same actor and effects team behind King Kong in 2005, and Gollum in Lord of the Rings before him. If there is a measuring stick that indicates where the performance ends and the effects begin, it is certainly inconclusive here. While Zoe Saldana’s Avatar alter ego at least had some emoted lines of dialogue to work with, Serkis must work almost entirely through facial expressions and miscellaneous noises. So much of Caesar’s apparent intelligence is due to his ability to simply sit and react quietly to what goes on around him. The slightest glance – the recognition that occurs when the audience gazes into the character’s green-flecked eyes – this is how Caesar conveys his inner consciousness and unmistakeable intelligence – and it is a work of absolute visual brilliance.

In addition to the facial capture, Caesar’s motion and physicality are nothing short of fantastic. The opening shot of the second act fast-forwards a few years to an extended tracking shot of Caesar swinging through Will’s house in order to follow some children playing out in the street. The shot lasts maybe 30 seconds, but it manages to convey both Caesar’s acrobatic capabilities as well as his burgeoning intellect with absolutely no dialogue or explanation. The film definitely strains its economy of dialogue at times – some brief moments of subtitled ape sign language were perhaps a bit of a stretch. But as a means of telling a coherent story in which significant portions of the screen-time are occupied by nothing but a smattering of apes – both alone and interacting with one other, it is an effective storytelling device.

In fact, I would take it a step further – the almost silent-movie story of the apes is easily the most compelling part of this film. The more talented members of the human cast are barely utilized. Brian Cox and Tom Felton appear as John and Dodge Landon, a father-son team running a primate sanctuary. Cox barely has five minutes of screentime in which to twirl his evil mustache before Felton usurps his position as ape-hater-in-chief. While it’s believable that a sociopath like Dodge might have trouble finding outside employment, it’s never entirely clear why he agrees to work at his father’s sanctuary when he clearly detests apes and everything about their care. But…sure, why not. Every good prison flick needs a sadistic screw on the cell block, and Felton proves that he can chew the scenery just as effectively without a British accent or magic wand.

Outside of Caesar’s storyline, Franco and his supporting cast are downright tedious. John Lithgow plays Will’s senile father, Charles, and gives a frankly cartoonish depiction of advanced Alzheimer’s. Equally cartoonish was Will’s next door neighbor (David Hewlett), whom we’re meant to despise because he has a problem with vicious, man-sized apes threatening his children, or senile old men trying to steal his car. Does he have some rage issues? Sure. But is he wrong?

Speaking of generic ethical subtext, Freida Pinto is a complete non-entity as Will’s love interest, seemingly present only to pose some of the more obvious bits of rhetorical dialogue about the situation: “What about Caesar?” “How does he fit into this?” “Some things are just wrong, Will!” But in spite of its boring cadre of homo sapiens, this film manages to tackle the ethics of raising a creature with near-human intelligence about as effectively (and with less lurid sensationalism) as last year’s Splice.

The film’s last act is pretty much non-stop action as the apes rampage through San Francisco. This entire sequence is brilliantly executed, both in terms of visual effects and action staging, and its more implausible elements are balanced out by a mix of effective character moments and a taut, exhilarating pace. Sure, the apes probably shouldn’t understand the importance of smashing security cameras. Sure, the military and police could probably take down an unarmed ape rebellion with relative ease. And sure, we’d probably see a lot more blood if this weren’t rated PG-13. But between the element of surprise (no one really expects a simian army wielding fence-posts) and the apes’ relatively benign intentions, they come off as surprisingly sympathetic even as they’re smashing cars and tossing cops. The whole sequence is purposeful and utterly thrilling, and left me eager to see the next chapter in this story.

Unfortunately, the next chapter is spelled out in a brief scene and infographic after the credits have rolled for a minute or so. I’ll chalk that up to the same marketing wisdom that led to the film’s nonsensical title change from the much more fitting Rise of the Apes. This additional bit of superfluous, Avengers-esque storytelling doesn’t ruin the film, but you’re probably better off leaving your seat as soon as the names start to roll.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

2008 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

After realizing just how many new movies I saw this year (despite being out of the country for 3 months), I decided to do my own movie awards, in the form of Top lists, starting with the Top 5 supporting performances, male and female.
And as for the “Glennies”… Yes, I know it’s horrific. You’ve got Becca to thank for that 🙂

Top 5 Supporting Actors:

#5: Robert Downey, Jr. – Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder

downey
If there is one actor who has proven his versatility and talent this year, it is Robert Downey, Jr. It is a testament to both Downey’s performance and the writing of the character that he managed to dodge all controversy regarding his blackface-sporting method actor persona (in favor of Ben Stiller’s use of the word “retarded”). Despite being perhaps the most absurdly over-the-top character in the film, his performance actually grounds the film from some of the absurdities of the other actors. In a film that I entered with high expectations (a rarity for me when I’m walking into a comedy), Downey’s performance was easily the most memorable.

#4: James Franco – Scott Smith, Milk

franco
His Spiderman years notwithstanding, James Franco has consistently turned in good work, and his performance in Gus Van Sant’s biopic is one of the best in a film filled with strong performances. While the film only does a minimal job establishing his relationship with Harvey Milk (they meet completely randomly on a staircase), it is Franco’s performance that makes you believe it. As the film goes on, Franco provides a subdued counterpoint to Diego Luna’s performance as the unstable rebound love interest, and proves himself an essential figure in both Milk’s life and the events depicted.

#3: Aaron Eckhart – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

eckhart
Somehow, Eckhart’s performance was lost in the torrent of praise for the acting in this film, and yet his scenes were among the most affecting for me. At the risk of sounding redundant… I believe in Harvey Dent. Because that is what is required of the audience for this character. You first have to believe in his goodness and incorruptibility. Then you have to see that goodness shatter, and realize the sheer tragedy of this character as he screams at Batman and Jim Gordon about how cruel the world is, and why he must do something terrible. I believe in Harvey Dent, and the final scene of Eckhart’s portrayal is heartwrenching for me every time.

#2: Heath Ledger – The Joker, The Dark Knight

joker
What can I say about this performance that hasn’t already been said? There is just something incredible about a well-written and well-acted psychopath. It’s why we loved Javier Bardem in 2007, and it’s why we loved Heath Ledger in 2008. It is his performance that makes the Joker seem real – plausible and terrifying.

#1: Philip Seymour Hoffman – Father Brendan Flynn, Doubt

hoffman
For a film that I shrugged off as “the sodomy movie” when I first saw the trailer, it ended up being so much more, owing entirely to the strong performances of its four central characters. Whether giving a rousing sermon, arguing vehemently with the headmistress, or sharing minor interactions with his students, it is Hoffman that makes this character both suspicious and sympathetic. The film thrives in the ambiguity surrounding this character, and Hoffman completely pulls it off.

Honorable Mentions:

Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Anil Kapoor – Prem Kumar, Slumdog Millionaire
Christopher Mintz-Plasse – Augie Farks, Role Models
John Malkovich – Osborne Cox, Burn After Reading
Shaun Toub – Dr. Yinsen, Iron Man Continue reading