“The Disaster Artist”

 

I did not hate The Disaster Artist. It’s not true. It’s bullshit! I did not hate it. I did naaaaaaaaaht…. Oh, hai reader!

Set between 1998 and 2003, The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and documents their bizarre friendship. They meet in an acting class where Tommy’s fearless and unapologetic nature inspires Greg. After they encounter brutal rejection in Hollywood, Tommy suggests they make their own movie. And that’s how we got the 2003 awful-yet-entertaining cult film, The Room.

The Disaster Artist is a case of life imitating art. While Wiseau produced, wrote, directed, and starred in The Room, James directs, produces, and stars in The Disaster Artist. Unlike The RoomThe Disaster Artist is good. Scratch that. It’s great!

James directs and acts with the same level of passion and showmanship; his performance as Wiseau is the best performance I’ve seen all year. It’s much more than a great Tommy Wiseau impression. James brings life, humanity, and spirit to one of the strangest and mysterious celebrities. Sure, he brings on the laughs, but we also feel sorry for him whenever he’s dismissed or belittled (even though Tommy does it to himself).

As Greg Sestero, Dave delivers his best performance. Greg is the straight man, though he has a stronger arc than Tommy. We see Greg grow from a naïve baby face (Tommy’s pet name for him), to a confident actor, and finally to an annoyed-yet-loyal friend. The Franco brothers both show their strong fraternal bond through their characters.

Screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) deliver an insightful script that depicts one of the most disastrous film productions in history. The Room was infamous for going over budget, over schedule, being shot on two formats, and several cast and crew members quitting. The Disaster Artist dives into the chaos of the production and we see that some of the depicted moments weren’t funny, but rather horrific. I found myself checking imdb to see how much of the production scenes in The Disaster Artist were true and found myself in awe. Though they risked losing focus with a tame subplot involving Greg’s girlfriend (Dave’s real life wife Allison Brie), I still found myself invested.

At one point, we see Tommy’s cast talking about The Room and actress Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) says the worst day on a film set is better than a boring day in real life This line is one of the many inspiring moments in The Disaster Artist. by the end when Tommy embraces his cult status, I felt provoked to make my own movie.

Grade: A

 

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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

There are three reasons that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the very best films of the year. 1. Martin McDonagh’s raw direction and script. 2. Frances McDormand’s phenomenal work as a vengeful mother. 3. Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance as a redeemable sociopathic cop.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown rightfully furious over the lack of results in her daughter’s murder investigation. Rather than go after the killer herself, her solution is to advertise Sheriff Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) incompetence through three billboards. The entire town sides with Willoughby and harasses Mildred constantly, including Willoughby’s belligerent alcoholic deputy Dixon (Rockwell). That’s all you need to know about this film’s wonderfully dark premise.

Irish playwright McDonagh (2008’s terrific In Bruges and 2012’s underrated Seven Psychopaths) hasn’t lost steam with his third feature. If anything, he’s matured and more restrained. Three Billboards is just as shocking and foul-mouthed as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but it’s more grounded. This is a film about three broken people who handle a tragedy in morbid fashion.

Mildred is a foul-mouthed force of nature. She isn’t afraid to drill a vindictive dentist’s thumb apart or ridicule a reporter on live TV, but she’s still human. Mildred doesn’t want revenge; she wants closure since she’s haunted by an argument she had with her daughter prior to her murder. McDormand delivers a fantastic multi-layered performance and is my frontrunner for Best Actress.

Willoughby is simply trying to maintain order and do right by Mildred. Not because it’s his job, but he wants to end his career on a noble note. He’s the ego to Mildred’s id and Harrelson is terrific as the ailing sheriff.

Then there’s Dixon. Dixon is a chaotic tornado of destruction who makes Mildred’s life a living hell. Despite his violent tendencies, Dixon is a flawed man who just wants a moment to shine. Dixon acts as the superego to Mildred and Willoughby. Rockwell delivers the best performance of his career and outshines Will Poulter’s evil cop character in Detroit.

McDonagh balances humor with poetic narrative and an attention-grabbing script. There are lines of dialogue that act as hypotheticals, but later become reality. He also has a cynical view of modern America that’s demonstrated in his depiction of the town community and Mildred’s morbid view of the Catholic Church. He’s not entirely wrong, though.

Three Billboards ends on a fittingly unresolved note that could make room for a potential sequel. McDonagh doesn’t strike me as the sequel lover, but I would hope he makes an exception in this case.

Grade: A+

“Justice League”

The DCEU is like a kid riding a bike; they crash on the first couple of rides, but slowly get better with practice. They’ve improved with Justice League.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) learn of a new CG-villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who plots world domination. Their solution – recruit Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) and resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill) from the dead to help them stop the new baddy.

I’m a fan of comic book movies, but I also have a love-hate relationship with Zack Snyder. I love his earlier work (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen particularly), but his DCEU films are huge misfires. Thankfully, Justice League is an improvement. It’s a B-superhero movie that’s just lighthearted fun. I admire that Snyder and Joss Whedon (who did extensive rewrites and post-production work) treated Justice League as a lighthearted superhero flick.

There are a few occasional dark moments with the best being a brooding opening credits sequence. It uses a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to show how hopeless the world has become without Superman. Part from that, Justice League relies on one-liners and witty banter to make the movie fun. Even Batman makes jokes, which is shocking!

The cast has great chemistry and each actor does their character justice. Mamoa plays Aquaman as a debauched rockstar, Miller plays The Flash as an antisocial nerd, and Fisher portrays Cyborg as a man torn between his humanity and robotics.

Affleck and Gadot are once again great as Batman and Wonder Woman; they both sell their characters’ conflicts and opposing views of battling Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is where the movie suffers. There’s no substance or originality with Steppenwolf and even with the underrated Hinds playing him, I wasn’t sold. Then again, does anyone ever watch a superhero ensemble movie for the villain?

The plot is a standard save-the-world formula we’ve seen done a thousand times. However, the final act is worth the ticket admission alone, thanks to Snyder and Whedon’s portrayal of Superman. He’s not recklessly destroying cities or brooding; he’s smiling and saving villages from destruction.

The DCEU sounds like it’s on its last leg, but I’m willing to keep going back since the movies are getting better.

Grade: B

 

“Thor: Ragnarok”

Replacing a franchise director can be risky. Putting Taika Waititi in charge of Thor: Ragnarok is just what our God of Thunder needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) survived the end events of The Dark World and they have a bittersweet reunion. They also discover they have an evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela takes over Asgard and casts Thor and Loki to Sakaar where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) forces Thor to become a gladiator. He also reunites with a certain angry green scientist (Mark Ruffalo) and they try to find a way to save Asgard.

Of the MCU franchises, the Thor is my least favorite. I found the first two films repetitive with too much focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship. Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air. Waititi replaces the rushed romance with a platonic friendship, removesThor and Loki’s brooding attitudes and amps up their wit, and he swaps out the Shakespeare undertones for a retro 80s aesthetics. I wanted to yell “YES,” in the theater like Thor does out of the happiness.

We see that Thor’s come a long way in growing up. He’s less arrogant, reckless, and is now wiser and accepting of Loki. Loki is still mischievous, but recognizes how much he cares for Thor. After four movies together, it’s easy to believe Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry as dysfunctional brothers.

Ragnarok is also the funniest MCU film to date. The jokes are physical, slapstick, and self-referential without ever being annoying. During the big battle between Thor and Hulk that’s in every trailer, we’re treated to some of the funniest cross-referencing jokes, thanks to Hiddleston’s comedic timing and facial expressions.

The action sequences are kinetic, flashy, and fun; they felt like a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy due to the candy-colored explosions and retro soundtrack (yes, Immigrant Song is in the movie). Waititi had previously directed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which spliced humor into over-the-top action sequences. He clearly loves both genres and will continue to make a strong impact.

The end battle is a tad anti-climactic, but is filled with enough character moments to suffice. Each cast member excels with Blanchett’s wonderfully evil villain and Goldblum’s eccentric secondary antagonist being welcome additions. I can’t think of another superhero movie that was this funny.

Grade: A-

“Blade Runner: 2049”

I’ve now seen Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated film, Blade Runner: 2049 twice. That alone should tell you how I feel about the film.

Thirty years after Deckard (Harrison Ford) fled with Rachael (Sean Young), we’re introduced to a new blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling). K’s tasked uncovers a certain secret that’s connected to him and Deckard, and threatens what remains of order. That’s all you need to know.

Blade Runner: 2049 was my most anticipated film of 2017 and it lives up to the hype. This is a mesmerizing film that maintains its predecessor’s tone and aesthetics while acting as a stand alone film. It’s currently my favorite film of 2017.

A lot has changed between 2019 and 2049 in the Blade Runner universe. Replicants have evolved, computers have evolved, and the world is now overpopulated and decayed. LA isn’t just rainy; it’s snowy, foggy, and smoggy. There isn’t a single shot of sunshine, yet the film is still stunning.

From start to finish, Blade Runner: 2049 is eye candy. I was mesmerized between the aerial shots of K driving through the neon skyscrapers and the shots of him walking through dark hallways and smoggy landscapes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, Prisoners, No Country for Old Men, Fargo) once again proves he’s the master of cinematography.

This isn’t a style over substance film by any means. Much like Ridley Scott’s masterful predecessor, Villeneuve’s sequel maintains the philosophical themes and ambiguous questions about life, death, and humanity. It also raises new ones about memory, miracles, evolution, and survival. 2049 isn’t at all a rehash of the first film.

2049 is 2 hours and 43 minutes long (roughly 44 minutes longer than the original) and is an epic in scale and tone. If you saw Villeneuve’s previous works Sicario and Prisoners, you know he has a knack for violent quick bursts of action. 2049 has enough to satisfy action lovers.

Everyone in the cast is perfect. Gosling delivers another cool, expressionistic performance as a troubled antihero. Ford portrays Deckard as a traumatized battle-torn veteran with grace. Robin Wright adds some humanity to her cold character Detective Joshi; she’s K’s superior and acts as a caring maternal figure. Even Jared Leto has a few golden moments as a god complex-ridden replicant manufacturer, Niander Wallace. Of all the performances, Sylvia Hoeks shines as Luv, Wallace’s replicant enforcer who wants to prove she’s the superior replicant.

Blade Runner was an acquired taste and 2049 isn’t any different. If you want an artistic epic that’s restrained in action but grandiose in themes, 2049 is for you. Villeneuve once again proves he’s one of the best working filmmakers to date.

Grade: A+

“Battle of the Sexes”

I’ve heard claims that Battle of the Sexes is an analogy for last year’s Trump-Clinton election. That’s not the case at all, though I can see both Emma Stone and Steve Carell playing Clinton and Trump in a future satire.

Women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Stone) is fed up with the gender wage gap and misogyny in the ATP. Washed up tennis player-turned-hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell) sees King’s crusade as a prophet for him and proposes a match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” King gladly accepts since Riggs continuously mocks women’s tennis.

Battle of the Sexes is a better-than-average biopic thanks to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s (Little Miss Sunshine) direction and Stone and Carell’s performances. The film is filled with glossy 70’s visuals and some beautiful, expressive shots. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of witty dialogue and banter thanks to the terrific Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) script.

Battle of the Sexes’s best aspect is its complex characters. This isn’t a black-and-white depiction of King versus Riggs, but quite the opposite. King plays for a cause, but has some flaws of her own in her love life. Riggs plays for attention and is clearly putting on a show to recapture his lost glory. Both Stone and Carell excel in capturing the emotions and complexity of their respective characters.

The film suffers from trying too hard at being Oscar bait on occasion. It’s quite obvious with Alan Cumming’s character’s closing line that the filmmakers are campaigning for the upcoming awards season. Also, like most biopics, we get closing captions in the end. It would be nice to see a biopic that defies this convention.

Still, I recommend Battle of the Sexes. It has spirit, humor, panache, and complexity.

Grade: A-

“Gerald’s Game”

What a year for Stephen King, huh? He’s rolling in royalties from It and The Dark Tower (maybe not so much the latter. Now his controversial novel Gerald’s Game has been adapted for Netflix.

The estranged Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) take a vacation to spice up their love life. Things take a horrific turn when Gerald suffers a heart attack and leaves Jessie handcuffed to her bed. There’s no neighbors, housekeepers, or travelers nearby. When Jessie has some surreal hallucinations and a starving dog makes its way inside, how will Jessie escape? Can she even?

Writer/director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) once again delivers a nail-biting genre film that utilizes editing to its full potential. Gerald’s Game isn’t a film you can look away from (and you’ll want to at one particular point), but you must watch; like Oculus, Flanagan splices the film in a way that tricks its viewers.

I want to be abundantly clear that Gerald’s Game is NOT a horror film. Yes, there’s a survival situation, creepy visions, and some grisly moments, but it’s a film about toxic relationships, trauma, and catharsis.

Jessie spends most of her time shackled to the bed recounting her marriage to Gerald. We learn that Gerald was misogynistic, unfaithful, manipulative, and condescending towards Jessie. Jessie also finds catharsis in the situation as she uses this and flashbacks of her traumatic childhood to motivate her.

The underrated Carla Gugino delivers a demanding-yet-graceful performance as Jessie. We don’t just watch her panic, but we also see her interact with an imagined dominant version of herself. These sequences add the right dose of humor. Hopefully, the Academy isn’t too snobby over horror or Netflix and consider Gugino for Best Actress.

Bruce Greenwood (also underrated) is convincing as Gerald. He’s a despicable human in the opening act, but as Jessie imagines their confrontations throughout the film, he becomes more complex.

The final act is a slight copout; It’s a pet peeve of mine when films end in a exposition-fueled narrative explaining what happened in the aftermath. Gerald’s Game disappointingly does this via written letter. Given Flanagan’s unconventional narrative techniques, I would have expected something less straightforward.

Still, Gerald’s Game is a terrific thriller and a great kickoff for the Halloween season.

Grade: A-