The Disaster Artist

I have never seen The Room, the film directed by Tommy Wiseau in 2003, the production of which is the subject of the film The Disaster Artist.  From the clips I’ve seen it looks as awful as its reputation.  Apparently, however, it resonated with enough people that it became a cult hit, one of those films that are recognized as so bad they’re good.

The Disaster Artist is based on a memoir by Greg Sestero, here played by Dave Franco, who co-starred in The Room and was Wiseau’s best friend.  Wiseau is played by James Franco who also directed.  When the story begins Sestero is an extremely self-conscious acting student.  The film opens as he’s doing a scene and it is painful to watch.  Afterwards Wiseau does a scene that is just the opposite; it’s way out there.  He’s writhing on the stage and climbing light poles.  The performance is also awful—the acting coach doesn’t even offer him notes—but in a different way.

Sestero is intrigued and approaches Wiseau about doing a scene together for the class.  This kicks off a strong friendship that eventually results in The Room.  They bond over watching James Dean movies and talking about their dreams of stardom and they agree to support and push each other.

The Disaster Artist is about following dreams, never giving up and being true to your artistic vision even if that vision is pretty much crap.  To me comparisons with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood are inevitable as are comparisons between Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood.  Wood stumbled into posthumous fame and Wiseau was lucky enough to do his serendipitous stumbling when he could benefit from it.  But the plots and the messages of these two films are too identical to ignore.  You could almost regard The Disaster artist as a remake.

The acting is good.  The Franco brothers acquit themselves well, which is what you would expect since both of them are very talented actors.  The supporting cast is good too but the movie is really about Wiseau and Sestero.

The reason I couldn’t get into the story is because of the character of Tommy Wiseau.  And that’s because not much is really known about the filmmaker.  Nobody knows exactly how old he is, where he was born, and especially how he became wealthy enough to self-finance his movie.  So we have this eccentric character at the center of the story and no way to get to him or his motivations.  He’s a cypher and what’s more he’s so disagreeable and frankly cruel at times it’s hard to like him.

The irony is that the one thing that Sestero struggled with as an actor, self-confidence is the one thing that Wiseau could help him overcome.  At the end of the film Sestero is a decent, although not great, actor.  So while I can’t understand Sestero’s initial attraction to Wiseau, I do understand his loyalty later.

There’s a scene where Wiseau accosts the producer Judd Apatow, playing himself, in a restaurant and starts doing Shakespeare.  Apatow, finally fed up, tells Wiseau that it will never happen for him.  To tell you the truth, in the same situation I’d have said the same thing.  Today Tommy Wiseau is a working director and producer.  So I guess that shows you what I and Judd Apatow know.



Roman J. Israel, ESQ

We all have ethical lapses.  Some are large; some small.  Sometimes we get away with it and sometimes we pay, often dearly.  Life is constantly confronting us with tests and nobody can pass them all.  And if you fail a big one, God help you.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a character study of one such person.  The title character, played by Denzel Washington, is a lawyer.  He’s smart and dedicated to reform through the legal system.  He was active in the Civil Rights Movement.  For thirty years he’s worked at a firm run by one of his old law school professors, a person equally devoted to these causes.  But he’s been a back room lawyer, preparing the briefs and motions and other paperwork for his boss who did all the work with clients and in the courtroom.  The reason for this is that Roman is on the Autism scale.  He’s highly functional, even brilliant, but he’s a little off and does not function very well when interacting with other people.

So when his boss has a stroke that puts him into a coma with very little chance of waking up, the walls that protect Roman from the real world begin to crumble.  The firm has been losing money for many years—too much pro bono work—so it will have to close, cutting Roman adrift.  George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell, is brought in to wind the practice down.  Pierce acts and looks just like a stereotypical slick lawyer.  He is not averse to making a lot of money.  But he is also a former student of Roman’s boss so there is a long moribund kernel of idealism there.  He offers Roman a job in his high-powered firm.

And then the ethical tests begin.

Let’s state the obvious.  This is Denzel Washington’s movie and he runs with.  Washington is not only a great actor, he is also a bankable and beloved movie star who’s fun to watch and you want to have a drink with him.  Colin Farrell turns in a terrific performance but this is Denzel’s baby all the way.  He abandons his usual easygoing persona and inhabits this awkward and flawed individual believably and brilliantly.  To play a person who is emotionally walled off and still convey his internal struggles cannot be an easy task and Denzel makes it look easy.

And that is the only reason you need to see this film.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, is angry.  Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier and the town’s police chief, William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, has yet to find the culprit.  Mildred is so angry in fact that she uses her life savings to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town, near where she lives, accusing the chief of incompetence.

This obviously disturbs Willoughby, but it also displeases the residents of Ebbing, where he is highly regarded.  Although people obviously sympathize with Mildred because of her loss, they don’t like her tart tongue and brusque manner.   It especially upsets members of Willoughby’s small police force, most notably Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

This is the kind of film that plays with your expectations.  From that set-up it would seem to be obvious where your sympathies should lie.  A grieving mother with spunk, trying to get the system to find the guilty party.  But it turns out that the crime was a random event, probably perpetrated by someone passing through.  This person had never been arrested before so the DNA and fingerprints they collected from the crime scene aren’t in any national databases.  It’s a dead end and there really is nothing Willoughby can do unless he gets a break.  He also turns out to be a pretty good father, husband and boss, a little rough around the edges, but smart and compassionate.  And then there’s also the fact that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer which is an open secret in the town.  The worst thing that can be said against him is that he didn’t fire Dixon when the officer was involved in an incident where he apparently tortured some African Americans.

And of course Mildred isn’t perfect either.  Once she decides on this course of action, she sticks with it, even when her moral high ground begins to erode.   Her stubbornness is a definite flaw.  She also has an acid tongue, which isn’t always used to defend herself.  I guess you could say she’s a little mean.

So there are all kinds of moral inversions here, twists not in the plot but in your sympathies.  In that way Three Billboards is like a Coen brother’s film.  The writer/director Martin McDonagh specializes in twisty crime films having made In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  His main influences are obviously the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie.  But he’s managed to synthesize those borrowed elements with something of his own.  And that vision really comes to fruition here.  There is an optimism and a belief in redemption that the Coen brothers simply don’t possess.  I wouldn’t call Three Billboards an uplifting experience but it is certainly lighter than No Country for Old Men or Barton Fink.

McDonagh directs his powerhouse cast expertly and the acting is note perfect across the board.  Harrelson isn’t really stretching here but it’s a classic example of portraying a man with faults but who is basically good at heart.  Sam Rockwell’s seemingly dim, bigoted officer at first seems unredeemable but belies that expectation as the movie progresses.  The actor, who is one of the best character actors working today, sells the change.

The centerpiece performance is McDormand’s, who turns in great performances year after year.  This is one of her best.  Mildred is an old bitter crank, who somehow wins and keeps your sympathy throughout the twists and turns of the plot.  McDormand sells it every step of the way.  She’s one of the best actresses working today.

So if you go see Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, don’t go in expecting a melodrama about an underdog woman taking on the system or a violent revenge saga.  This film is an examination of the human moral landscape and a strong statement that anybody can be redeemed.  You, as an audience member have to work at it, but Three Billboards is one of the best films of the year.

Lady Bird

Christine McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a high school senior who lives in Sacramento.  And she’s not happy about it.  In fact she’s not happy about much, including her given name which she changes to Lady Bird.  Like every teenager she has these inarticulate longings that often contradict each other.  She wants to go far away to the east coast for college but she’s also trying to get romantically involved with a couple of boys.  But unlike a lot of teens she’s smart and determined enough to actually get what she wants and hold it until she realizes that it doesn’t help.

Her family is a little dysfunctional with a sullen brother, Miguel, played by Jordan Rodrigues, and his equally sullen live in girlfriend.  Her father, Larry, played by Tracy Letts, just lost his job and he’s having a hard time finding another one at his age so finances are strapped.  Needless to say this adds to Lady Bird’s dissatisfaction.

And then there’s Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf.  Marion is trying to force Lady Bird into maturity by constantly pointing out when she is being selfish or foolish.  Of course all that really accomplishes is Lady Bird stubbornly clinging to her immaturity.  It’s a classic case of parent and child being too much alike to get along.  Metcalf easily delivers the best performance in the film.  Even when she says the meanest things, she somehow gets across that it is done with love.  And when Lady Bird really needs her mother to be understanding, she delivers.

When it comes to the lead, writer/director Greta Gerwig directed Ronan to act in much same manner as Gerwig does, smart and quirky.  It’s like when Woody Allen’s male leads remind you of a younger Woody Allen.  When you read Gerwig’s bio on IMDB, you can tell that this story is probably autobiographical.

So I hate to report that I had trouble getting into it and it had a lot to do with the main character.  This is a story about a young girl maturing which means that for most of the film, she’s immature and frankly not very likeable.  This may be realistic and is almost certainly a choice on Gerwig’s part.  However, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable movie.  Lady Bird’s quirkiness isn’t charming enough to overcome the distaste resulting from her actions, some of which cross into dishonesty.  When things go wrong, she stoically accepts the consequences but she never really atones.

There are some very funny moments in the film, and when you consider that it’s Gerwig’s first feature it is impressive, but it really didn’t hang together for me.


The early 60’s were a time of change everywhere in our society. Almost no aspect of our culture was left untouched and to a certain extent untraumatized, at least for the ones resisting the changes. Nowhere was this more true than in the Catholic Church. Vatican II had just issued several important reforms to try and make the church more open to prospective worshippers and there were a lot of unhappy people who felt that the essence of their faith had been betrayed. Others of course, welcomed the changes.

Novitiate follows a group of prospective nuns through their training, which is made an ordeal by Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, played by Melissa Leo. She is a battle ax of the old school who is determined to train her charges the old way. Her program is more like basic training than a theological course of study. She makes no secret of the fact that she wants to wash many of them out before they take the habit. To her becoming a nun is literally marrying Christ and the relationship with Him requires the sacrifice of everything one has. The Reverend Mother has not left the confines of the convent in forty years. In return these women get special status, recognition of their special relationship with God.

The girls, for their part, are struggling, not only with their leader, but with own desires and urges. They say they are ready to forsake physical relationships but are they? The main focus of the movie is Sister Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley. Her single mother raised her alone and doesn’t believe in God anymore so her daughter’s decision is particularly galling. But Cathleen’s decision is a sincere one and she survives all of the Reverend Mother’s schemes until a new novitiate, Sister Emanuel, played by Rebecca Dayan, joins the shrinking group and Cathleen finds herself having unholy thoughts about her.

I must say that I enjoyed Novitiate much more than I thought I would. It is not a subject that interests me much. But I found myself drawn in and interested in the day to day life of a nun and especially in the theology that guides them. Some of that exposition could have been smoother but that is something I can forgive especially in the face of a fine production by writer and first time director Margaret Betts. She leads a leisurely pace through this world that is unknown to most of us but I never found myself bored. I didn’t look at my watch once.

The acting was exemplary. All the novitiates were convincing, especially Margaret Qualley, who portrays her struggles on a usually impassive face. But special mention goes to Melissa Leo who by turns breathes fire and evokes sympathy as an authority figure who is out of her time and beginning to sense her own obsolescence. Leo’s name is generally mentioned around Oscar time and she’s getting a lot of buzz for this performance.

I’ve always heard good things about Vatican II. It preached tolerance for other faiths and recommended more open and accessible masses. Nuns were told—and they were told, having had no seat on the reform committees—that they could wear regular clothes if they wished. But they also lost that special relationship with God. The Church decreed that they were no more special than any other female member of the faith. For women who had given up everything for this idea, it was a blow. A note at the end of the film reported that nuns left the Church by the thousands at this time.

Thor: Ragnarok

Apparently outer space in the Marvel cinematic universe is a very silly place. The two Guardians movies have been out and out comedies and now the third Thor movie, Thor Ragnarok is also a romp through the stars. The main reason for the comedic tone is the new director, Taika Waititi, who has a special sense of humor arising from outsized characters voicing mundane concerns, such as his vampires in What We Do in the Shadows arguing over whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s the type of humor he brings to the movie.
As we discovered at the end of Thor The Dark World, Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, has assumed the guise of Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, and has taken over Asgard. Loki, however, doesn’t know all of Odin’s hidden secrets. It seems they have an older sister who is more powerful than both of them. Her name is Hela, played by Cate Blanchett and she’s the Goddess of Death. Hela has been kept in exile by Odin. When Odin dies, however, Hela is set loose and she means to claim the throne of Asgard and conquer the nine realms.
When Loki and Thor try to stop her, she destroys Thor’s hammer. They are both cast into deep space, winding up on the planet of Sakaar, which is at the nexus of several worm holes, so an immense amount of debris and a lot of disreputable people wind up there. A being named The Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum, rules there and he runs gladiatorial games. Thor is kidnapped by Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, a former elite warrior of Asgard, who has a history with Hela. She now has an arrangement with The Grandmaster. Thor’s first fight in the arena is surprisingly against the Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo. Now they must find a way off Sakaar and return to an Asgard ruled by Hela.
But never mind the plot. You’re here for the laughs and there are plenty of them. Mostly it’s because of Waititi’s offbeat sense of humor. But another factor is that Hemsworth is so good at comedy. It’s not fair. A guy who looks that good shouldn’t be funny too.
The other performances are good, as well. Hiddleston’s Loki is definitive at this point; you don’t dare trust him but you can’t help but like him. Cate Blanchett can play anything. You might think she’s slumming in this but she’s obviously enjoying herself immensely. It’s fun to watch.
The effects, the sets, the costumes are all pretty much perfect. Marvel never drops the ball in the technical department.
In short, Thor: Ragnarok is a lot of fun.

The Florida Project 

When I was a kid, we took a family vacation to Florida. It was in the middle of summer and it was ridiculously hot and humid, the perfect time not to visit Florida. Anyway, one of the places we stopped was Orlando. This was when Disney World was still in the planning stages. On the TV, they were talking about what a great place Orlando was going to be once the park was built.
It was kind of a dump then.
And I gather from The Florida Project that parts of it still are. The movie takes place in a cheap Orlando motel, located on a busy state route in the middle of cheesy tourist traps. It could be the same motel my family stayed in all those years ago. I wouldn’t remember. All the buildings are painted bright garish colors. The motel in question is covered in purple stucco. The surrounding architecture is bizarre with buildings that look like giant oranges or with huge wizards emerging from the roof.
In this tacky but fanciful location Moonee, played by Brooklyn Prince, a rambunctious six-year old, runs wild. Her mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, is on parole and unable to find a job; her days are spent hustling up the funds to make her weekly rent. It doesn’t help that her behavior is little better than Moonee’s. So Moonee is allowed to run wild. The only person even trying to reign her in is the manager of the motel, Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe. Bobby is gruff on the outside, constantly threatening to throw Halley and Moonee out of their room but he never quite gets to that point. In fact he looks after the kids living in his motel, at one point chasing off a pederast who was bothering them.
The events in the film unfold over summer vacation when Moonee and her crew of friends have nothing to do but get into trouble. She is unable or perhaps unwilling to see how hard her mother is struggling and how close they are to catastrophe. But she also has a talent for having fun, of living in the moment.
The child actors are really good especially young Miss Prince. She is able to show us a kid, who despite her destitute circumstances manages to find joy and entertainment in her meager surroundings. You can also see her mother’s affect on her; the urge to stand up for herself, even if in unfocused, inappropriate ways. And when it all falls apart, Miss Prince acquits herself admirably.
Willem Dafoe, while not really stretching here, delivers his usual outstanding performance. Bobby is far from a saint and is at times unsympathetic. But Dafoe captures that dichotomy between grump and good guy particularly well here.
The Florida Project is a movie that’s hard to watch. I doubt that I caught half the dialog because the soundtrack is so muddy and the kids speak fast and they aren’t worried about speaking clearly. But the main problem is that most of the film is told through Moonee’s eyes, so her tiresome antics, most of which don’t advance the plot, take up a lot of screen time. That viewpoint also creates a lot of creative uncomfortableness when we see what’s going to happen. And even though she’s unpleasant most of the time, you do wind up sympathizing with her.
It’s a hard film to watch but a difficult one to stop thinking about.

December 2017
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