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The Art of Making a Disasterpiece

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People sometimes ask me if it’s harder to review a bad movie or a good movie. That’s easy: Writing a positive review is always tougher. Bad movies fall apart before your eyes: Scenes, performances, directorial choices stand out because they don’t work. When a film is great, all the elements meld, and it’s a challenge to express why it’s creatively successful without resorting to the same old synonyms for “excellent.”

But the truth is, every movie is a miracle. It’s a collaborative effort among a group of artists seeking to realize the vision of (usually) one person. When it all comes together, it’s magic. That’s one reason I love going out to the movies so much. Even though some of my friends think I’m crazy for spending so much time in a dark room watching mediocre or worse movies, there’s always the possibility that I’m going to see a masterpiece. Or a disasterpiece.

The Disaster Artist is a great film about the making of a terrible film: The Room, the 2003 cult-favorite unintentional comedy written, produced, directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau, an auteur of indeterminate age, ethnicity and wealth. James Franco, an actor-director capable of being awfully brilliant (Spring Breakers) as well as brilliantly awful (Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?), finds genuine inspiration in Wiseau’s quixotic quest to become the greatest dramatist since Tennessee Williams.

It’s a deeply personal film from Franco, and the culmination of his astonishingly prolific career to date. He casts younger brother Dave Franco as Wiseau’s best friend, roommate  and creative comrade, Greg Sestero; Dave’s real-life wife, Alison Brie, as Greg’s girlfriend; frequent co-star Seth Rogen as The Room‘s script supervisor; and mentor Judd Apatow as a Judd Apatow-like big-shot producer whom Tommy accosts in a restaurant and subjects to his performance of Stanley Kowalski’s “Stella” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire.

Franco and Rogen got their big breaks on Apatow’s tragically short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, and The Disaster Artist is a love letter to the freaks and geeks of the show-biz world. Like La La Land, it’s a romantic ode: “Here’s to the ones who dream/Foolish as they may seem/Here’s to the hearts that ache/Here’s to the mess we make.” It’s hugely entertaining, endearing, funny and self-aware (see what I meant about synonyms?). And make sure to stay through the end credits for the most meta-tastic scene I’ve seen in ages.

Maybe someday a great film will be made about the making of Just Getting Started — but I doubt it. This lazy comedy sounded promising on paper, as it’s the long-awaited — by me, at least —return of writer-director Ron Shelton. The guy practically invented his own genre, the sports-themed brom-com, with Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. The quality of his films dipped when he went outside those lines (Blaze, Hollywood Homicide), but much of Villa Capri, as Just Getting Started was originally called, takes place on a golf course, as a former Mob accountant (a miscast Morgan Freeman) hides out in witness protection at a retirement community and hits the links with a mysterious new resident (Tommy Lee Jones, who can barely muster up enough energy to be cranky).

Ostensibly, they’re competing for the affection of a corporate interloper (Rene Russo) who’s been sent to impose financial discipline on the supposedly wonderful Villa Capri, but there’s zero chemistry in this would-be triangle. The story creeps along — even a few rote car chases take place at low speed — amid a few half-hearted attempts at jokes. What happened to Shelton, the quicksilver wordsmith who composed such beautiful odes to baseball in Bull Durham? He’s lost his fastball. Forget the generic new title. The movie stalls out before it ever gets started.

Yet there I was on opening night, sitting in a mostly empty theater where the median age was deceased, hoping Shelton would wow me one more time. As Judd Apatow tells Tommy, “Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.” And still I dream.

 

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Is Woody Allen’s Wheel a Wonder?

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2017 must be the most Wonder-full year ever at the movies. We’ve already seen Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, and just plain Wonder. And now comes Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. Sadly, there’s nothing wonderful about it.

“Spare me the bad drama,” Kate Winslet’s 1950s Coney Island waitress whines to her lifeguard lover (Justin Timberlake) late in the film. Much too late. The old joke about Woody is that filmgoers liked his “early, funny stuff” better than his more dramatic late-career work. With Wonder Wheel, Woody has officially come full circle, but not in a good way. It’s a drama that’s unintentionally hysterical. It’s kitsch. It’s camp. Mostly, it’s crap.

The Woodman, who just turned 82, has spent the last decade living a peripatetic cinematic existence, hopping from country to country (England! Spain! Italy!) where his films — and his morals — are judged more favorably than in the U.S. of A. Even his American-set films have largely avoided his native New York City, choosing locales like San Francisco (Blue Jasmine), Newport (Irrational Man) and good old Hollywood (Cafe Society).

Wonder Wheel marks his most NYC-centric film in years, yet it feels like it was made by a tourist. Part of that problem is due to the casting. None of the film’s four leads feels like a true Noo Yawker, muchless an Ike-era Brooklynite. Timberlake is way too vanilla to come off as a Greenwich Village-dwelling grad student; you can take the boy bander out of the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can’t take the Mickey Mouse Club out of the boy bander. For his female lead, Woody cast the wrong Kate, er, Cate. Blanchett was able to make the overheated dialogue of Blue Jasmine sound natural; Winslet always seems like she’s Acting, and not just because her character is literally a drama queen, a frustrated former actress who says she’s not really a waitress, she’s just playing a role. Her lines don’t just telegraph her emotional state; they telecast it (e.g. “I’m unraveling,” “I’m consumed with jealousy!”).

Another Brit, Juno Temple, does a toned-down version of the kewpie molls played by Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway. As her father, Jim Belushi attempts a Brooklyn accent, but his mumblemouth delivery comes straight out of Chicago. One wonders what James Gandolfini could’ve done with this role, an alcoholic merry-go-round operator in a (literal) wifebeater, especially when three of his fellow Sopranos alums — Steven Schirripa, Tony Sirico and Max Casella — show up briefly and bring the film the shot of verisimilitude it desperately needs. The same holds true for David Krumholtz as a Jewish philosophy student — if only he had been cast in Timberlake’s role, the film might have genuinely been in sync!

Given the #MeToo moment we’re living in, there probably couldn’t be a worse time to put out a Woody flick, especially one distributed by Amazon, whose studio chief, Roy Price, stepped down amid sexual-harassment allegations. It doesn’t help that Woody uses the film to plead his own case. Winslet’s character bemoans what a cold world we would live in without forgiveness, and Timberlake is saddled with the unfortunate line, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” echoing Woody’s own “The heart wants what it wants” re: Soon-Yi.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t just feel fake — it looks fake, with supersaturated colors from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Dick Tracy, Reds, Apocalypse Now) and a self-conscious staginess. It’s also the first Woody movie to use extensive CGI, a cheaper way to recreate period detail. One can only hope Woody’s next film (his 50th!), A Rainy Day in New York, feels less like it was generated by a computer and more by a human being with a beating heart.

The Oscar Race Shapes Up!

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year for serious film fans. December brings us an avalanche of awards contenders. I’ve already reviewed such hopefuls as Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Wind RiverDownsizing, Hostiles and Mudbound, and now I’ve seen three more would-be nominees. The first, and best, is The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s uncategorizably wonderful mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and E.T. with classic Hollywood romances, musicals and silent films.

It’s a love letter to cinema — and to great character actors, starting with Sally Hawkins, who tops even her Oscar-worthy turn in this year’s under-seen biopic Maudie with an almost wordless tour de force as a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government lab in 1962 who gets caught up in a very fishy love story. The cast overflows with great talents at the top of their games: Boardwalk Empire vets Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, the always-marvelous Richard Jenkins, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a very different kind of “help” and the versatile Nick Searcy (he can play everything from a commanding general here to a kindly pastor in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — more on that later).

The less you know about The Shape of Water going in, the better, so I won’t spoil any of its delightful surprises. Just remember the name Doug Jones and don’t be surprised if he turns up as a dark horse — er, fish — come Oscar time.

Almost as great is the aforementioned Three Billboards, a major creative rebound for playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh after his dazzling feature debut In Bruges and the sophomore slump of Seven Psychopaths. Frances McDormand is Fargo good as a Midwestern mother hell-bent on finding her daughter’s murderer. Did I mention it’s a (very dark) comedy? Sam Rockwell has deservedly earned kudos for his supporting turn as a racist cop who shows surprising shades of humanity, and Woody Harrelson is equally fine as a police chief hiding a secret not very well.

This is another film that spills over with indelible performances. The ensemble also encompasses three gifted alums of HBO dramas: Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage, Deadwood‘s John Hawkes and The Wire‘s Clarke Peters. Misguided as she may be, McDormand’s anti-heroine seems to be a character both red and blue states can get behind, which is saying something in this time of divisiveness.

The title character is Roman J. Israel, Esq. is similarly flawed and fascinating. I just wish he were in a better movie. Washington can almost never be counted out of the Best Actor race, and his portrait of a radical lawyer suddenly seduced to trade in his morality for money is masterfully subtle. But writer-director Dan Gilroy stumbles in his follow-up to his dazzling 2014 debut Nightcrawler. The story seems stuck between a conventional Hollywood legal drama and a more experimental character study and ultimately doesn’t succeed as either.

The rest of the film’s characters are underdeveloped, and the actors — Colin Farrell as a slick rainmaker, Carmen Ejogo as an idealistic activist — never get below the surface. On paper, Roman J. Israel, Esq. should’ve made a strong case for itself on Oscar night, but on screen, it raises too many objections not to be overruled.

What the Hell Happened to Al Pacino?

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Every time he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in… with a paycheck! That’s the only explanation why Al Pacino, one of the finest film actors of all time, has resorted to making direct-to-video potboilers like Hangman, premiering on VOD Nov. 24. Over the past decade, Pacino has been churning out forgettable “thrillers” like 88 Minutes, The Son of No One and Misconduct at an alarming rate. He’s not as shameless as Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or John Cusack, but none of those guys ever attained the esteem that Pacino achieved in his prime.

At least the 77-year-old star is acting his age in Hangman, which casts him as an ex-cop who comes out of retirement to pursue a serial killer playing a deadly version of the titular game in an unnamed Southern state. The locale gives Pacino an excuse to deploy a version of the corny drawl he adopted in his overrated, Oscar-winning turn in Scent of a Woman. Still, he acts circles around his main co-stars, the impossibly bland Karl Urban (just because he was in Lord of the Rings and Star Trek doesn’t mean he should keep getting lead roles) as a detective haunted by the murder of his wife and the even more vanilla Brittany Snow as a journalist with a dark backstory of her own. The film’s best performance comes from Person of Interest vet Sarah Shahi, cast against type as a tough-talking police captain in a wheelchair.

Directed by Johnny Martin, who recently worked with, yes, Nicolas Cage on the direct-to-VOD Vengeance: A Love Story, Hangman is serviceable but nowhere near the caliber of classic Pacino cop movies like Serpico, Heat or Sea of Love. The last of these marked a major comeback for Pacino after a decade of crap like Cruising, Author! Author! and Revolution.

One can only hope Pacino’s got another career revival left in him — he’ll soon continue his run of HBO biopics (Phil Spector, You Don’t Know Jack, about Dr. Kevorkian) as Joe Paterno in Happy Valley, directed by Barry Levinson, who made one of the actor’s best films in recent years, The Humbling. He’ll also collaborate with Martin Scorsese for the first time — how is that possible? — as Jimmy Hoffa in Netflix’s The Irishman, which reunites Pacino with Robert De Niro, his co-star in Heat… as well as 2008’s justifiably obscure Righteous Kill. Oh, and Pacino’s also got a small role in the low-profile pic The Pirates of Somalia, coming Dec. 8. With any luck, to quote Al’s Scent of a Woman character, he’s just getting warmed up!

Yes, Sweet Virginia, There is a Santa Claus!

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Big-budget Hollywood blockbusters mostly bore me to sleep. In the past few weeks, I’ve taken naps during Kenneth Branagh’s well-appointed but deeply unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express and Zack Snyder’s less-than-super Justice League (Thor: Ragnarok was better, but why has Chris Hemsworth’s Norse god headlined three movies while Mark Ruffalo’s incredibly endearing Hulk hasn’t earned a single stand-alone?) I’m more excited these days by wildly creative low-budget indies like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Mr. Roosevelt and now Sweet Virginia.

If you haven’t heard of it — and you probably haven’t, as it was quietly released in one theater and on VOD over the weekend — Sweet Virginia is a lean, mean thriller that brilliantly casts the often-brutal Jon Bernthal against type as a mild-mannered Alaska motel owner who crosses paths with a deadly stranger, magnetically embodied by Christopher Abbott. (When Abbott left Girls after its first season, I thought he was nuts to ditch such a red-hot show, but that decision is looking wiser and wiser all the time.)

Turns out Abbott’s character is a hit man who was hired by a disgruntled wife (Imogen Poots, in her strongest performance to date) to knock off her cheating husband. The only problem is, the heel was also broke, and the client was counting on his inheritance to pay off the killer. Complicating matters is the fact that the contract killer also murders the husband of a woman (the always-underrated Rosemarie DeWitt) who’s having an affair with Bernthal’s ex-rodeo rider.

Director Jamie M. Dagg (River) wrings maximum tension out of the script by brothers Benjamin and Paul China, who originally set the story in 1970s Virginia. The period details proved too expensive, so Dagg moved it to present-day Alaska, but the film still has a ’70s feel to it — it’s gritty and minimalistic like so many of that decade’s best movies. (Bernthal’s character hails from the Old Dominion and has dubbed his hotel Sweet Virginia.) Dagg mostly keeps his camera still, letting characters walk in and out of frame, creating an unspoken suspense that’s sometimes almost unbearable.

When Bernthal, whose character could be a spiritual cousin of Willem Dafoe’s kindly innkeeper in The Florida Project, finally erupts into violence, it’s a profoundly dramatic catharsis. Yet Virginia ends on a surprisingly sweet note with a simple scene that requires no dialogue. If there’s any justice, moviegoers will discover this quiet gem over the holidays. Without a superhero in sight, it’s in a league of its own.

Getting Naked at the DOC NYC Festival

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Anybody who knows me knows of my love for the New York City burlesque scene, so I was thrilled to attend the premiere of director James Lester’s fantastic documentary Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story at the DOC NYC festival this week. (It screens again on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 9:45 p.m. at the IFC Center.) I spoke with James about his quest to honor such fabulously talented artists as Hazel Honeysuckle, Gal Friday and the Schlep Sisters (Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda).

Do you remember the first time you saw a burlesque show? It was in 2008 at the old Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was an accidental show. I was meeting a friend, and as I got in, a band onstage was air-playing “Free Bird” and then these two trapeze girls descended from the ceiling wearing skimpy tank tops. One said “Free” and the other said “Bird.” It was wild and hilarious and neo-burlesque ironic. I didn’t even know what it was, but I fell in love with it.

What did you love so much about it, right off the bat? I loved that it was sexy but not exploitative. I loved that it was funny and theatrical and it was making fun of itself.

When did you start working on the documentary? I had done a scripted series of webisodes featuring burlesque performers, and when I ran out of money because we were self-financing it, I was in limbo. I bought one of those cameras you can hold in the palm of your hand in 2010 and kept filming the performers. Then I got the idea to make a documentary when I saw how many performers the city had and the scope of all the different venues.

Why did you choose to focus on Hazel, Gal and the Schelps? What I realized as I was doing it was I didn’t want to do a history of burlesque. I wanted to do a character study, and to do that well, you need arcs. I gravitated to those who had the most struggle, whether it was internal like Gal — because I could tell she was going through an artistic and personal transformation — or with Minnie, who was going through a physical struggle with her health. With Hazel, a new performer, I could see she had a struggle underneath the surface about who she was and whether she was being accepted in the scene.

Was it difficult having established personal friendships with these performers to decide who gets the most screen time? It was at first, and the most difficult footage to lose was with Perle Noire, who gave me this great, raw interview. But you have to separate yourself from the friendships. It became very clear once I handed the film over to my consulting editor, Meg Reticker, who has cut The Wire and True Detective. Having her in there was very helpful. The performers are so professional so there was rarely, if ever, a moment when it felt like they were whining about screen time. They trusted me to do it right, and I trusted them to be themselves.

What do you hope people will take away from the film about burlesque? I hope people will see these women are artists. They’re craftspeople, and they work their tails off. My father is a jazz musician, and this world felt similar to me: They work at night in clubs and don’t make much money.  These women work eight hours a day on an act that’s going to take three minutes. I’m hoping what I show makes it clear who these ladies are.

Virginia is for Film Festival Lovers

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When I was a fledgling film critic during my undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I tried to see every new movie that came to Charlottesville, somehow talking friends into accompanying me to see such seemingly forgettable flicks as Disorderlies, Hello Again, Memories of Me and The Killing Time. (But if I remember them 30 years later, were they really forgettable?) During my final year at U.Va., the first Virginia Festival of American Film was held, and since then, I’ve come back periodically to revisit the event, which has been renamed the Virginia Film Festival. This year, I saw seven movies over two and a half days, including the opening night premiere of Downsizing, which I’ve reviewed separately.

It turned out I saved the best for last, as I’ve just returned from the centerpiece screening of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. I loved Cooper’s script for Crazy Heart as well as his earlier directorial efforts, Black Mass and the criminally underrated Out of the Furnace. Hostiles reteams him with Furnace‘s Christian Bale, in another Oscar-caliber turn as a U.S. Army soldier assigned to escort a grief-stricken widow (a career-best Rosamund Pike) and an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family across dangerous territory from New Mexico to Montana in 1892. It’s a stark, beautifully shot drama that combines the visual sweep of a classic Western like The Searchers with the brutal revisionism of modern masterpieces like Unforgiven. The note-perfect cast overflows with great character actors (Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Scott Wilson and an especially impressive Rory Cochrane). Much more than a period piece, Hostiles raises relevant issues. The title itself dehumanizes an entire race by referring to a group people by a plural adjective rather than a noun, much like Trump Era racists refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” In the end, we’re left with a question: Who are the real hostiles?

Earlier in the day, I attended a provocative and entertaining Q&A with Spike Lee, led by U.Va. professor Maurice Wallace, that addressed some of the same issues by way of introducing Lee’s documentaries 4 Little Girls (about the Birmingham church bombing) and I Can’t Breathe (about the killing of Eric Garner, and how life imitated art with the death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing). Lee, who wittily pointed out that he might be related to Robert E. Lee but he won’t believe it until he sees the DNA, likened the genocide of Native Americans to the gentrification of NYC neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. He also took a few well-placed shots at a local sacred cow (“Your boy Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner!”) It was a bracing wake-up call to a community still reeling from the white supremacist terrorism in August.

Issues of racism and genocide also resonate throughout Django, a powerful biopic of the legendary gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) and how he navigated his way out of Nazi-occupied France in 1943. It’s a fascinating chapter in the life of a man whose music remains as invigorating as ever.

I also attended a couple of classic films with something extra: Alfred Hitchcock’s still-entertaining silent thriller The Lodger with live accompaniment from the Reel Music Trio and Harold and Maude with enlightening shot-by-shot commentary from Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson as well as the film’s producer Charles Mulvehill. I first saw Harold and Maude when I was at U.Va., and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Which just proves the truth of the festival’s tagline: Virginia is for film lovers.