The Disaster Artist (2017)

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Directed by: James Franco

TheDisastorArtistTeaserPosterThe Disaster Artist is a bromantic collaboration (James and Dave Franco), that tells the story of the tumultuous but unbreakable friendship that collaborated to tell the story of a powerful friendship that fell apart too easily. Put more simply it’s the story of the two men behind a film, The Room (2003), that’s described as the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It is based on a book of same name, by one of these two men (Greg Sestero). I do not regret opening this paragraph with that run-on sentence, however, as it is necessary to acknowledge The Disaster Artist’s truly inter-textual relationship with the movie it references. Just as The Room is an exploration of betrayal, The Disaster Artist is a celebration of loyalty.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) enters the story as an aspiring actor who is too awkward to succeed. James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau, is both Sestero’s opposite and equal: he is too melodramatic and different too succeed. Unlike Greg, Tommy inhabits his own planet. He is wealthy, appears to have no family connections and does what makes him happy. Tommy is a fascinating character, but what truly justifies The Disaster Artist, is that Greg’s everyman story is just as compelling Tommy’s.

Tommy’s story is shaped by a seeming obliviousness to what others expect of him: what is “normal behaviour.” Greg does not share this obliviousness, yet he is utterly infatuated with Tommy. Greg sees Tommy’s idiosyncrasy as a strength, perhaps something he can learn from. Because Tommy lives on his own “planet,” it is as if his defects don’t matter. Things work differently on planet Tommy, so when Greg grows sceptical about his chances on earth, he decides to become a part of Tommy’s world.

Of course, while ultimately about Greg, The Disaster Artist, would not be without Tommy Wiseau. While the script admits to knowing little about him, particularly Wiseau’s pre-room biography, it nonetheless sheds some light on his way of seeing the world, and helps us make sense of his approach to acting. We learn, for instance, that two of Wiseau’s biggest influences are Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. The Room is a relationship drama where little happens, but emotions run-high. It’s protagonist, Johnny, has brief, yet soliloquy-like out-busts. Even as Wiseau’s art does not ultimately resemble that his of his role models, it should nonetheless be recognized as the homage that it is.

Furthermore, The Disaster Artist is by no means a simple celebration of Wiseau. It shows his cold, authoritarian side, while exploring his internal struggle to be seen as a protagonist. This brutal honesty on the part of the film (via the brutal honesty of Greg Sestero’s book), however, ultimately feeds the film’s unique celebration of loyalty. Refusing to accept that his eccentricities can at times be harmful, Tommy repeatedly persuades Greg to stand by him by invoking their vow of loyalty, and emphasizing that the film is “our movie.” Greg’s navigation of Tommy’s flaws shows what loyalty has and doesn’t have to mean. The movie invites us to sit in the discomfort of realizing we can love and not stand someone or something at the same time. This message, of course, does not simply apply to Tommy and Greg, but to The Room itself. When people watch it religiously, calling it a movie that’s so bad it’s good, aren’t they really just saying it’s one of their favourite movies?


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Lady Bird (2017)

Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig

In my time watching film with a more critical eye, I’ve slowly developed the habit of Lady_Bird_posterobserving the relationship between film’s and their trailers. Many audiences will go into Lady Bird knowing it is highly acclaimed, and that its protagonist is a bad-girl of sorts who celebrates her 18th birthday by demanding “camel lights, a scratcher, and a playgirl” at her local convenience store. Lady Bird, however is not a simple comedy that entertains audiences through the hair-brained antics of its wild-child protagonist. Instead, the film is ambitious in its realism. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is charismatic and daring, perhaps a teenage (and human) version of Kevin Henkes’ children’s book character Lily, but she is not a rebel without a cause either.

            Lady Bird’s can almost be split into two halves to it. Each half features a best friend (Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush) and a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalomet). Rather than having a plot and a subplot or two, the film simply has a main plot coupled with a number of subplots that are unafraid to peter out. For example, we meet Lady Bird’s older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues). We see some of his quirks and struggles, and are exposed to the underlying tensions in his and Lady Bird’s sibling- relationship, yet he never fully crystallizes into a main character. While certainly not understated, Lady Bird’s plot structure draws on the pacing and emotional weight of everyday drama. In doing so it manages to be emotionally engaging in a way that feels somewhat novel for Hollywood.

            The success of Lady Bird’s realism perhaps can be tied to the screenwriter’s trust in our ability to take its character’s struggles seriously, even as the piece’s stakes are lowered. For instance, we know that Lady Bird struggles with math. The film clarifies that she is not at risk of failing, but rather in B- territory. This revelation does not take away from Lady Bird’s frustrations, it simply colors them. More importantly, the film’s main plot relies on an antagonistic relationship between Lady Bird and her strict, financially-anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird, however, doesn’t do anything dramatic to get revenge on or sever her relationship with her mother: rather, she explicitly says on multiple occasions that she understands her mother’s thinking, and knows her mother loves her. This subtlety allows a broad range of viewers to identify with Lady Bird, and contrary to what one might assume, it does not make her story feel any less dramatic. Many of us live “boring” lives that inside our own heads are nonetheless compelling dramas. Lady Bird’s success comes from its committed attempt to bring that kind of drama to the big screen.

            Lady Bird has broken Toy Story 2’s record for number of critics’ reviews its received on Rotten Tomatoes without garnering a single negative submission. While it may not be a singularly great movie, it is notable for the lines it sits on: it straddles the fence between realistic and whimsical, between dramatic and understated. Whether its Kyle Scheivle’s performative idealism, Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) piousness-with-a-sense-of humour, or Julianne Steffan’s nickname, chances are you will at very least find a character or two compelling in Lady Bird

 

Loving Vincent (2017)

Written by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Directed by: Kobiela and Welchman 

Loving_Vincent            Let me begin by saying that Loving Vincent is a work one should see independent of one’s opinion of its narrative merits. Those who have heard of it previously surely know why. It describes itself (presumably accurately) as the world’s first oil-painted movie. The project consists of 65 000 frames and was painted by a team of 115 painters. In short, it is an animation miracle.

That said, I hope my first paragraph does not sell the film’s narrative short. The movie takes place following Van Gogh’s death and tells the story of Armand Roulin, a young man, and subject of one of Van Gogh’s portraits. Roulin is sent by his postmaster father (also the subject of a Van Gogh painting) to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As Roulin’s task grows more complicated, his journey turns into a mystery, one where he questions whether Van Gogh in fact committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The film is arguably sold short by its title. It is not a predictable, gushy tale of people feeling guilty and learning to love a mentally ill man and his work too late. Rather it is a work that maintains a constant air of mystery. Roulin’s journey to understand Van Gogh ultimately sheds a light on how he does not and perhaps cannot understand Vicent. Perhaps, the film implies, this is because Roulin is not himself an artists, but a more typical hot-headed male hero-figure. An alternative explanation is that the film intentionally limits itself with its medium. Characters move slowly through their viscous, post-impressionist surroundings, surroundings that limit their abilities to express themselves. Therefore, even as the film is a post Van-Gogh work, it ultimately only retells the story that Van Gogh, through his work, had already made public.

While the film is meant to resemble a Van Gogh painting, its artists did not attempt to create facsimiles. Rather, actors were cast in the roles of Van Gogh’s painted subjects, and the film’s painters painted over digital renditions of their faces. Roulin’s features, for instance, are firmer then they are in Van Gogh’s original depiction of him, giving him an air of toughness (in contrast to the sadness Van Gogh may have seen in the then teenage boy, whom the film’s creator’s imply he did not know well).

In essence, viewers should go to Loving Vincent to appreciate its visual singularity, and in doing so can enjoy a decently compelling story. While the animation pace may take some time to get use to, the film makes for a pleasant celebration of a beloved historical figure.

Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.

 

Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.

 

The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.

 

It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.

 

Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.

 

Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.

The Florida Project (2017)

Written and directed by: Sean Baker

The_Florida_ProjectLook at the poster for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Above a rainbow you’ll see a tagline in small white font: “find your kingdom.” Baker has a knack for producing dark comedies, and in the case of The Florida Project, he’s produced a rainbow-colored dark comedy. The tagline thus serves as an important invitation: an invitation to see the film through the awestruck eyes of its child stars, rather than to simply lament in its misery.

 

The film tells the story of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) a 6-year-old girl who lives in a motel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is immersed in a small community of her friends: Scooty, Dicky and Jancey (Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malick and Valeria Cotto) who accompany her on adventures. Moonee’s main interests seem to be mischief and breakfast food. Her mischievous-side leads her to have regular run ins with the motels’ sometimes fatherly, sometimes pragmatic and opaque manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and to cause trouble for her mother.

 

Living just outside of Disneyworld, Moonee is able to lead her friends through a series of quasi-palatial structures: a restaurant/store with a giant orange on top, another store decorated with a giant wizard’s head, and an ice cream-shaped-ice-cream-stand where she can get “free” ice cream. The motel itself is called the magic castle and despite being a rundown “dump,” it still stuns with its faux-turrets and light-purple color. To some degree, these visuals signify Moonee’s childhood naivety. She does not know she lives in poverty because in her head she lives in a castle. That said, the film is clearly one that prides itself in its visuals. Its intent is clearly for audiences to both feel sorry for Moonee and to take genuine pleasure in enjoying her kingdom which stuns despite its desolate, highway location.

 

Moonee is not the only one who lives in a fantasy world. Her mother Halley also savours the reckless freedom she can find, despite constantly being under pressure to put money together. Many of the perks of Moonee’s kingdom are in fact, put in place by Halley, who facilitates various ways for Moonee to get free breakfast and explore her community. The film emphasizes Halley’s similarty to Moonee, by contrasting Halley with her with her friend Ashley (Mela Murder), a fellow motel-dwelling-young-mother who shows more concern about her kid, Scooty’s, behaviour.Halley is precariously (to put it mildly) employed, and has a penchant for vulgarity that makes it hard for her to win sympathizers.

 

Unlike Moonee’s story, which permits audiences to separate the beautiful from the tragic, Halley’s story is more thoroughly disheartening. Halley regularly gets herself into trouble as a result of her rebellious, profanity laden speech. While at first Halley’s expletives seem like more adult-versions of Moonee’s gleeful cries of “biatch,” the film eventually makes it apparent that Halley’s vernacular is a deep part of her existence. As Halley’s story becomes more tragic, audiences are forced to struggle with the notion that while Halley could seemingly improve her standing with others by cutting down on the swears, it may in fact be impossible for Halley to speak any other way.

 

It is the complex nature of Halley’s “wild” behaviour that shapes the tragic side of The Florida Project. Halley’s struggles stem from the fact that the traits that make her a bad mom and good mom are highly inseparable: she feeds her child by stealing, she teaches her child bad manners to protect her from equally obnoxious adults, etc.

 

Aside from Dafoe, The Florida Project relies on a cast of rookie actors. This use of unknown voices is part of director Sean Baker’s broader vision of telling untold stories. The Florida Project tells the unknown story of impoverished-motel-dwellers, and through Halley it provocatively explores the causes of cycles of poverty. Despite these sombre ambitions, however, the film also tells the (semi-)unknown story of a child’s imagination. In doing so it masterfully presents a product rooted in gritty, tragic realism that in its own way finds its fairy tale happily ever after.

It: Chapter One (2017)

Directed by: Andy Muschietti, Written by:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

Disclaimer: This review treats “It” as a standalone work. I acknowledge that it is an adaptation of a novel by an iconic writer, and recognize that this film’s overall merits cannot be weighed without considering the parameters set by the original text.  

 

It_(2017)_poster            For the time being at least, It is a cultural phenomenon. James Corden featured It’s primary antagonist, Pennywise the dancing clown, in a humorous sketch, The Beaverton has used it to skewer anti-PC demagogue Jordan Peterson, and Pennywise costumes are now on sale for Halloween. In a way this is surprising. “It” is not exactly an original name for a horror film (particularly with recent, more dynamic uses of the title in mind), and a scary clown is not exactly an original monster (anything that’s interesting about Pennywise is presented in a way that is three-fold more interesting by various iterations of the Joker).

As I began to watch the film, I thus worried it would be banal by horror standards. The story wastes no time in introducing its titular clown and does nothing to conceal his dark side (if he even has a non-dark side). Instead, it turns quickly to graphic violence. As the film progresses we learn a bit more about Pennywise (ie he is not just a murderous clown, but a multi-faceted monster), but not enough to make him a particularly memorable personality or psychologically captivating villain.

It’s my belief that horror films, whether they be “high-brow” or “low-brow” are particularly likely to be good watches, as almost by definition they contain suspense and plot twists. This means they hit that ever present standard for good storytelling: unpredictability. Pennywise, for the most part, does not help It check the unpredictability box. Luckily, however, there is a lot more to It than its most advertised personality.

TV series Stranger Things, can partially credit its popularity to its invocation of nostalgia for 1980s culture and classic sci-fi/horror tropes. While I found the ultimate subtlety of (the first season of) Stranger Things made it underwhelming, It’s over-the-top repackaging Stranger Things’ qualities proved successful. One not-too-subtle overlap between the two works is cast member Finn Wolfhard. While Wolfhard was seemingly given thick glasses in It for the soul purpose of clarifying that he is not in fact Mike from stranger things, his character, Richie, is more Lucas (Mike’s sometimes hot-headed, best friend), than Mike, albeit with a magnified personality. Everything about Richie signifies “best-friend” rather than protagonist, yet the character is nonetheless one of the film’s most memorable personas: the writing of the role is perhaps It’s greatest strength.

Richie is part of a friend group of what ultimately turns out to be seven kids. Each of these kids is given at least somewhat of a backstory, and while not all of them are well developed, the ambition of introducing and bringing them all together is another of It’s strong points. It should be noted, however, that the film seems to rely on (an albeit somewhat self aware form of) tokenization. Only one of the seven kids is not-white, and although he has a very compelling backstory, he is absent for much of the middle of the film. Only one of the seven kids is a girl, and she serves as a love interest for two of the film’s male characters. Whether this should be read as a rebuke or excessive-reinforcement of the traditional imagining of a token-female-character as a love interest for geeky, male heroes is a question I imagine, that cannot easily or unambiguously be answered.

So in essence, It is a good horror film due to the flawed but still compelling portrayal of its seven young heroes. That seems like a bit of a weird way to sing the praises of a horror film. Luckily, It, like all good horror movies, situates its characters in a mysterious, terrifying universe, even if that mystery and terror is not entirely the creation of its central villain. The film also features archetypal bullies and (all degrees of) bad parenting. Perhaps another good way of selling It, is noting that it duplicates (without resembling) much of what’s effective about Harry Potter. It is a story of kids engaging in unlikely heroics against a magical villain, in the face of worse-than-Malfoy-esque bullying and adult incompetence and cruelty.

I’ve heard It described as more gross than scary. For the most part that is an apt description, as the film’s villain’s lack of subtlety limits the amount of nail-biting one will do in the lead up to his attacks. While viewers should be aware of potentially triggering content in the film (strong allusion to sexual violence against a minor), non-horror fans should not be put off from seeing It. If you are interested in ambitious narratives, and enjoy tales of rag-tag friend groups, seeing all 2 hours and 15 minutes of It is absolutely worth your while.

 

Lucky (2017)

Directed by: John Caroll Lynch. Written by: Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja

Lucky_(2017_film)

Lucky’s story is simple, so there is little one can say about it without giving too much away. That is not to say, however, that the film is unenjoyable. Lucky can be described as being in the same, broad style as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, but is far more accessible than the 2016 film. Both works follow characters through the repetitive mundanity of their days, and in both films audiences are challenged to glean enjoyment by identifying heavily with the realist lives of their protagonists (for example exchanging pleasantries with the quirky folks at one’s local watering hole), rather than looking for some fantastical escape. Unlike Paterson, a film with almost no plot )save for some poetically-quaint tragedy at its end), Lucky is quick to introduce viewers to a weighty point of struggle in its protagonist’s life: his bout with mortality.

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan reminds us in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” For many of us that way of thinking is an ever-present but subtle demon in our heads. Death may come, but not for an eternity. Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton)’s dilemma is he does not know what head space to put that thought in. He is lucky in that despite being a very thin, pack-a-day-smoker at an advanced age, he passes his health exams with flying colors. His miracle body is as healthy as it has ever been. This means that on the one hand he can put the thought of death in the back of his mind with much of the rest of us. On the other hand, however,  he is old, so despite Lucky’s general good health, his doctor nonetheless feels compelled to put existential thoughts into his head. Lucky thus exposes the ultimate limits of luck. A person can be “lucky” in the sense of living for a long time, yet even such “lucky” people must exist with the burden of knowing that each time a new day arrives, they are one day closer to death. This tension contributes to Lucky’s subtle, but compelling dilemma. He is a steadfast socially awkward man who must decide whether he is in a hurry or not to overcome his shortcomings and be at peace with his eventual demise.

 

When I watched the film I did not realize its star, Harry Dean Stanton, had died two weeks previously. While it would be a mistake to project an actor’s personality onto a superficially similar character he portrays, that knowledge will no doubt allow viewers to appreciate the film with an additional degree of depth. Lucky is the light and sometimes funny story of a man contemplating his ultimate legacy, so Stanton’s playing the role is poetically fitting. If simple, multi-tonal, gently-existential filmmaking is of interest to you, or if you simply like David Lynch and tortoises, check out Lucky in theatres today!