The Disaster Artist / *** ½

hgn8jpfI feel like there’s no real way to talk about The Disaster Artist without first explaining my feelings about The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s iconic, inscrutable, catastrophic film which defies any sense of good or bad. I have seen The Room nearly a dozen times in the past 8 years, and it’s a movie that brings me incredible joy every time I watch it again. Yes, there are those who argue that The Room is “so bad it’s good,” a term that I truly loathe when it comes to movies – life is too short to watch bad movies, I’d argue, and most of us aren’t the MST3K crew. But The Room is something magical – it’s utterly bewildering in its choices, as though it was written and filmed by an alien who had lived among humans for all of two weeks before crafting what it assumed was an intense relationship drama that also touched on every major human emotion, seemingly at random. From bewildering camera movement to astonishingly bizarre writing, from nonsensical plotting to excruciating sex scenes, and featuring a truly one-of-a-kind “performance” by Wiseau himself. It is, in short, absolutely insane, and wonderfully so.

I say all of this because there’s really no way to discuss The Disaster Artist without taking into account your feelings about The Room. As a movie, The Disaster Artist just isn’t that good, really; it’s incredibly broad, tacks on a contrived ending, and generally takes the weird outsider story of Greg Sestero’s fascinating book (which I highly recommend) and turns it into Tim Burton’s Ed Wood – a love letter to dreamers – and ends up making it feel cheesy and overdone. So, yeah, as a movie? Not the best.

But as a love letter to The RoomThe Disaster Artist made me laugh very, very hard, very, very often. Much of that has to come down to James Franco’s performance as Wiseau, which transcends mimicry so quickly that it’s unbelievable; within seconds, I lost track of Franco under there, and just felt as though I was watching Wiseau, from his off-kilter reactions to that bewildering accent. (Indeed, there are moments when Franco is in a tanktop and sunglasses when he basically could be Wiseau.) Franco’s performance anchors the film, turning Wiseau from a caricature into…well, into Tommy, with the good and bad that comes with that. It’s a truly great performance that single-handedly elevates the movie into something else entirely.

And then, there’s the film’s loving recreations of iconic moments. By now, you’ve probably heard that The Disaster Artist ends with a montage playing its own scenes next to the ones from The Room, and while that sounds self-congratulatory, the movie earns it, putting as much love into aping Wiseau’s weirdness as Tommy did making it – maybe even more. More to the point, it helps drive home for any who haven’t experienced Wiseau’s film that, yes, it really was that bad.

But, honestly, I don’t know that you’ll get much out of The Disaster Artist without knowing The Room. I don’t know that you’ll enjoy Franco’s incredible performance unless you realize that, no, he’s not overplaying it; Tommy really is that weird. (This is made abundantly clear in a post-credits scene that I truly loved on so many levels; while the scene was clearly made to placate a key figure, it doesn’t make it any less wonderfully weird and perfectly played.) I don’t know that you’ll enjoy the frustrations of the people on set, or the little easter eggs dropped in as hints as to the origins of the movie, or the ongoing debate of Tommy’s accent, without realizing what this is all about. And I definitely don’t think the film’s broad, overdone arc is interesting enough to hang a movie on.

And yet, even with all of those comments, I thoroughly enjoyed The Disaster Artist – it’s funny, often hilarious, delivers an incredible performance by Franco, and really does offer the best possible tribute to The Room. After all, what could possibly be a more apt tribute than a not very good movie that I enjoyed anyway?

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The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman / *****

efbc574d33807f47c01eaac2124374c8Middle books are infamously difficult. They lack the originality of the first novel, but the satisfaction of the finale; they often are piece-setting books, a chance to get things in place for the final volume. And yet, every so often, you get a middle volume that’s every bit the equal of its predecessor – and such is the case with The Subtle Knife, which follows The Golden Compass in a way that both expands on the original’s world and builds on it, continuing the story while still somehow feeling like its own unique entry in the series.

Much of that comes from the decision to, at first, make The Subtle Knife entirely disconnected from the first entry. We don’t open on the cliffhanger on which we left; we don’t even open on Lyra, or her world, at all. Instead, we open on our world, with a new protagonist: a boy named Will, who has been desperately trying to cover up for his mother’s mental illness, only to discover that there might actually be men out to get her. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand, putting Will on the run and on a collision course with Lyra, as the two start finding gateways and windows between worlds. Meanwhile, back in Lyra’s world, Lord Asriel’s plan to do nothing short of battling God is coming together, with Lady Coulter still serving as the wild card in the mix.

In short, then, a lot happens in The Subtle Knife, which moves every bit as fast as The Golden Compass but takes on even more, diving between worlds, moving in and out of world-building, and taking on scientific concepts like dark matter and theological questions such as the nature of Original Sin. All of which could easily sink a lesser book, but somehow, Pullman juggles it all successfully, investing us in the characters and their plight first, and using his philosophical underpinnings as a way to drive the story, while never making them feel tacked on or thoughtless.

It also ends up making the series fairly weighty fare for its YA audience, but in a way that the best YA books manage, addressing its ideas thoughtfully but never condescendingly, explaining them in clear ways that never feel as though the author is talking down to his readers. Yes, by The Subtle Knife it becomes clear that Pullman’s idea of writing the anti-Narnia is more complicated than we might have expected; instead of simply arguing that there is no God, Pullman is grappling with the philosophical and theological assumptions of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), arguing as much with the execution of the Church as the idea of it. That’s a fascinating take on things, and makes the series more than a simple atheist screed; instead, it works as a coming-of-age story that questions a belief system in thoughtful ways.

Mind you, if the book was simply a theological argument, it wouldn’t be this fun to read. And yet, again, on this front, Pullman succeeds wildly, pulling out action sequences, diving into the world of the polar bears, building to a massive war, cranking up the suspense, and delivering plot reveals that will drop your jaw. It really is easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment this series is, and just how engaging, fun, exciting, and compelling it all is – and the fact that it’s not just surface sheen, but something richer, is even better. In short, it’s every bit as good as The Golden Compass, and maybe even better – and that’s no small feat.

Amazon

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman / *****

Screenshot 2017-12-06 09.41.45I first read The Golden Compass (known originally in Great Britain as Northern Lights, but retitled for its American release) in college, for a course in children’s and adolescent literature, and I was immediately swept up into Philip Pullman’s incredible, imaginative, astonishing world. I didn’t know anything about the series – not the controversy that it had attracted, not Pullman’s goal of making a children’s series that served as a response to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical Narnia novels, not even how many books the series would be. All I knew is that I loved this world, these characters, and the imagination on display, and before I had even finished the novel, I rushed out to the bookstore and bought the concluding two volumes in the series (wonderfully, I was assigned the book right after the long wait for volume three finally ended).

Now, with the release of a new book in this world (The Book of Dust, which I’m beyond excited to read), I decided to revisit Pullman’s trilogy, to see if it held up as well as I remember, and to focus as much on the craft and themes this time as I did the story on my first readthrough. And here’s the good news: The Golden Compass is even better than I remember, telling its original, unpredictable story with style and grace, creating a book that’s undoubtedly for young audiences without ever being condescending, and yet packed with enough nuance and thought to be satisfying for any adult reader. (In some ways, it’s the original Pixar film that way.) It’s exciting, funny, graceful, thoughtful, original, and just a pure blast to read.

To try to explain the plot is complicated, not least because so much depends on this intricate world that Pullman has built, where the Church reigns over most of the civilized world, where technology has a somewhat steampunk feel, and most strikingly, where all humans are constantly accompanied by their “daemons” – spirit animals, for lack of a better term, but ones that serve as an extension/embodiment of their souls. When you’re a child, your daemon shifts and flits between moods; as you grow and mature, it settles into a given shape that says much about you. And while that seems like a simple enough conceit, Pullman packs it with metaphorical richness, from the way it gives windows into characters we don’t fully know the truth of to the way it becomes a metaphor for aging and maturity – one of the key themes of the book.

Indeed, at its heart, The Golden Compass – and the entire His Dark Materials trilogy – is about growing up and maturing, and the accompanying changes that come with that. The series is primarily driven around the quest to understand Dust, an elementary atomic particle that seems to change its behavior based off of the age and maturity of a child. And while the exact nature of what Dust is – or, at least, what it may be – only becomes clear as the book continues, it becomes understandable very quickly that this ranges into theological territory, with questions of sin, evil, and the “knowledge of good and evil” coming into play. Which brings us to the deeper question: how do you keep children safe from the corrupting influence of sin? More importantly, should you?

If that sounds heavy, it should; Pullman’s trilogy is engaged in nothing less than theological debate, first as subtext, and then by text. And yet, while the content is evidently there from the early going, nothing in The Golden Compass ever makes the book feel preachy or bludgeoning; instead, what you get is an astonishing adventure, as our heroine Lyra – a scrappy, determined, outspoken young girl who grows up as the adopted child of Oxford University, more or less – goes in quest of her uncle. Along the way, Pullman brings in witches, aeronauts, a compass that taps into Dust to understand the reality of the world, and most memorably, polar bears, who live in an honor-bound society where their armor and battle is as much a part of them as Lyra’s daemon is.

That all of this happens in less than 300 pages shouldn’t work; that so much depends on us buying into Pullman’s world and understanding its taboos and the importance of daemons, even less so. And yet, miraculously, it does, thanks in no small part to Pullman’s rich prose, which plunges us so deeply into Lyra’s view that it’s hard not to get swept up into it. Nor does it hurt that Pullman’s imagination is so rich, and his pacing so fast; The Golden Compass absolutely moves, never shirking its characters, but never letting time pass without some new wonder, some thoughtful discussion, some incredible sequence. It’s one of the richest, most compelling fantasy settings around, and a forerunner for so much of the YA that’s become so popular in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight.

The thing is, though? It’s almost definitely better than most of that YA, up to and including even chunks of Potter. (Blasphemy, I know. But read The Golden Compass and then come tell me it’s not better than, say, Chamber of Secrets). If you’ve never read it, you’re going to be blown away by it, I promise you; jump in and understand why this series captivates so many, and why it resonates so many years later.

Amazon

Bone Tomahawk / ****

bone_tomahawk_xlgBy the time I got around to Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler’s horror-Western-70’s drama hybrid, its reputation was quite ahead of it. The best way to see it undoubtedly would have been to jump in cold, not even knowing the weird genre bends to come; as it was, I knew a few things to expect. I knew the film took its time; I knew it started as a relatively talky, 70’s-esque western before turning into a nightmare; and I knew that the film involved a cannibalistic tribe of natives, who brought with them into the film some heavy gore.

And yet, none of that really robbed Bone Tomahawk of any of its myriad pleasures, nor did it prepare me for the shaggy, lived-in feel of the performances, nor the way its languid tone is used to great effect before it’s yanked away from you in that nightmarish final act. I’ve read comparisons between Bone Tomahawk and the films of Quentin Tarantino, and while I can see where they come from – both take a dialogue-heavy approach to evoking those character studies of the 1970’s; both enjoy a writerly turn of phrase; both (and I’m leaning here particularly on The Hateful Eight as a comparison point) manage to create a vibrant Western environment while still leaning into a revisionist take on the genre – ultimately, Bone Tomahawk feels more like its own wonderful, odd film.

Much of that has to be laid at the feet of some of the great performances, from a welcome turn by a grindhouse icon in the opening scene to the wonderful partnership of Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, each playing a fascinating take on the “western sheriff and his deputy” trope. Russell is phenomenal, playing an icon of decency who manages to both clearly evoke strains of John Wayne (it’s not a coincidence, I think, that Bone Tomahawk plays out like a horrifying take on The Searchers) and yet also brings a decency and sense of justice that was often lost in Wayne’s bravado and machismo. And then there’s Jenkins, playing the part of a fiercely loyal deputy whose best days are behind him, and yet nonetheless is the kind of friend you would want with you until the bitter end. Add to that Matthew Fox playing as a violent manhunter with upper-class sensibilities and Patrick Wilson as the doting but helpless husband, and you’ve got a pretty powerhouse cast for your posse.

The plot couldn’t be simpler – a townswoman goes missing, and a group of men go to find her, even though the “tribe” that’s taken her is only whispered of amongst true natives, and then with a sense of horror. And trust me – by the time you meet the clan of cannibalistic, brutal cave dwellers, they live up to the buildup, with Zahler creating something so fundamentally nightmarish and almost alien that it defies logic and plunges you into a nightmare. It’s a weird gearshift for any movie, but Bone Tomahawk makes it work simply by virtue of how hard it goes for it, with all hell breaking loose within seconds and no sense of hesitation. And that final act is relentless, bloody fare, with one already (in)famous scene that’s earned the film a following among gorehounds, and rightfully so.

And yet, for as memorable as that final act is, Bone Tomahawk is as watchable and enjoyable for its patter, for its engaging with Western tropes and archetypes, and for its devotion to this mission into the heart of the West. Anyone can do a horror sequence, but Zahler’s first two acts show a man with more on his mind, investing us in the characters and immersing us in their time, and lulling us into a false sense of security by keeping its mind in the “real world” at all times. Even without the final act, Bone Tomahawk would be great; it’s just that the final act transforms the film into something else (though what exactly that something else is is up for debate, I think) and creates a hybrid that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Bone Tomahawk is a little overlong; the ending is a little abrupt; some of the shagginess could be cut; there are a couple of characters that feel underdeveloped or underused; and there’s a sense that Wilson’s role is only about half of a character at times. But for all of that, it also feels like the work of a director with a unique and compelling vision, one that’s not easily hemmed in by genre boundaries, and one that’s eager to both embrace the grindhouse roots of his films and modern methods, uniting them in a way that feels both old-fashioned and exciting. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a damn good one, and one that leaves me excited thinking that this is just the start for Zahler’s career.

IMDb

Coco / ****

djfoeu9wsaaz-gwThere was a time, even a few years back, when I wouldn’t have missed a Pixar movie for the world. And even now, when some of the luster has come off of the studio’s once flawless sheen – maybe especially now, after the disastrous one-two punch of The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3 (which, admittedly, I didn’t even bother to see) – to see a Pixar movie is to be reminded of the fact that the studio’s work is so head and shoulders above the majority of its peers (I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation; Studio Ghibli, you still rock). Luckily, Coco is a move back in the right direction for the studio, getting back to so much of what Pixar is known for. And while Coco has some flaws, they’re more than outweighed by the film’s successes.

Mind you, Coco doesn’t feel like anything special or great in the early going, taking far too long to get to its central conceit, and not always successfully threading the needle between “being respectful to Mexican culture” and “overdoing it”. The setup feels a bit labored for a while, following a young boy named Miguel who wants to be a musician, despite his family’s hatred of the profession. After a lot of business involving the Day of the Dead, an iconic Mexican mariachi, and a talent show, Coco finally dives into its real world: the world of the dead, where spirits wander and live as long as someone in the physical world remembers them – but once they’re forgotten, even their ghosts die off.

Pixar animation is at its best when it’s allowed to be wild and imaginative, and the Land of the Dead is no exception; as depicted in Coco, it’s vibrant, dazzling, and absolutely wondrous, reminding you of how ambitious Pixar can be, and how astonishing their animation so often is. Truly, the opening reveal of the Land of the Dead is a jaw-dropper, and as the film dives into bureaucracies, spirit guides, outcast neighborhoods, and more, you’re reminded of what made you fall in love with Pixar movies in the first place.

And, of course, there comes the reminder that really, no other American studio can marry plot, theme, and emotional heft as seamlessly as Coco. This is a film about memory and legacy, and about how we remember and honor those who come before us. That’s weighty fare, but as usual for the studio, it’s handled skilfully, incorporated into the story in such a way that it never overwhelms the characters, but instead, underlines their own emotional battles, all while hitting home for the audience. This is a film not only about our relationship with our own ancestors, but also, our fears of being forgotten, and our worries about what we’ll leave behind – and Pixar turns it from subtext to text and back again effortlessly, just as they did at the peak of their powers.

For all of that – and there’s a lot there to love – Coco doesn’t feel as original and surprising as the best Pixar work. The plotting here is pretty obvious, with a couple of major reveals along the way telegraphed to the point of obviousness, both from their familiarity and from the way Pixar works. And that first act is a drag; one of the great things about so many of the first generation Pixar films is the way they hit the ground running, never wasting a second, while Coco feels long at times. For all of that, though, it’s a welcome return to form for the studio, and a joy as a family film, especially at a time where it feels like everything is soulless, bland, and flat.

About that Olaf short: Infamously, Coco is preceded by a Frozen short film called Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, whose reception has been blistering. Here’s what I’ll say about it: it’s fairly obvious that this was intended as a TV holiday special, and anyone who’s sat through any of them with their kids will feel that instantly – the blandness, generic feel, flat message, and “holiday” message all feel like the kind of thing you turn on during the season for the kids, while parents mainly zone out. All of which is to say, it’s not awful, like that terrible short Lava before Inside Out; it’s just bland and dull. The problem, really, is the length – while everyone enjoys shorts before Disney movies, no one wanted a 20-minute short before a movie, especially after trailers and before a short ad for Pixar. It’s certainly not good or interesting, but its crime is more in its length than anything truly memorable or bad about it.

IMDb

The Florida Project / *****

florida_projectIt’s hard to write a review of The Florida Project, a movie that is so much about its mood and tone – and so little about its plot, in some ways – and yet, it’s a movie that I’m compelled to talk about, just in the hopes of making more people watch it, because it brought me such joy. It’s a film that feels like you’re simply watching people live their lives, giving us a window into the lives of the working poor while filtering it through that inexpressible optimism and silliness of childhood. It’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly honest throughout, showing us its characters without judgment or scorn – and that’s a sentiment I can always get behind.

The Florida Project takes place at a hotel that’s more or less serving as an apartment complex for a number of lower-class working families. More than that, it focuses on the kids that live in (and around) that complex, especially a young girl named Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who’s so natural here that you quickly forget you’re not just watching a documentary about children). Moonee is six years old, and this world is what she knows, from the odd tenants of the hotel to the local businesses, and director Sean Baker and the film follows Moonee and her friends as they play, goof around, misbehave (in more mischievous ways than anything bad)…and really, that’s about as much plot as there is to the film. We see Moonee’s interactions with her mom, a single mom named Halley (Bria Vinaite, another newcomer, and another incredible and naturalistic performance) – the love between the two of them, the struggles Halley goes through to provide for the two of them, and the difficulties of their lives. And weaving in and out of their lives is the hotel supervisor, played by Willem Dafoe (guess what? It’s another incredible performance, this one reminding you that Dafoe is a truly great character actor and not just someone to be cast as an oddball).

And really, that’s about it, in terms of what happens. Yes, we catch glimpses of Halley’s struggles, and catch implications about the outside world intruding into these children running wild (and often unsupervised); yes, kids come and go in the hotel, Disney World looms nearby, and tourists come and go; yes, in some ways there’s a conclusion that’s more heartbreaking and heartfelt simultaneously than you probably expected. But by and large, Baker simply follows around Moonee and her friends as they play games, sneak into off-limits room, check out derelict condos, and get into the kinds of trouble you probably expect 6-year-olds without much supervision to get into.

But more than that, The Florida Project immerses us in this world, letting us see everything through the eyes of Moonee and her friends – unaware of the darkness of the world, unaware of their place in society, unaware of the judgment that so many people have for them, and instead just joyfully and anarchically running wild through their world. Whether they’re shouting at tourist-filled helicopters, marvelling at rainbows or fireworks, begging for ice cream, or just watching TV, there’s something wondrous about the way that The Florida Project slowly but surely lets you live in this world and its naturalistic, warm performances. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re watching a movie with The Florida Project; it’s so warm and natural that it feels like you’re just another inhabitant of this hotel, keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends. Even Dafoe, who’s just about the only major name of the film, loses himself in the world, giving a performance that gives you a peek into his warm heart without ever preaching about it or beating you over the head with it.

Yes, there are ideas and themes to The Florida Project that I love – acceptance, empathy, a glimpse of the difficulties of live among the working poor, and more. But more than any of that, I loved The Florida Project because it’s warm and loving and honest and human in a way that few films ever manage. It’s funny, it’s charming, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and storytelling. It’s my favorite film of 2017, and I can’t say enough great about it.

IMDb

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** ½

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouriIt’s been a bit over a week since I saw Martin McDonagh’s incendiary, inflammatory, angry Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and even now, I’m struggling with how I feel about the film. There is part of me that’s deeply frustrated with the movie for touching on controversial, important themes that it has no interest in truly grappling with – themes like police brutality and institutional racism, whose eventual sidelining in the film is truly frustrating. And yet, for all of that, I can’t deny the craft of the film on every level – from astonishing performances to a lacerating script, from beautiful visual elements to a haunting score – nor can I deny how much the message of the film hit home for me, even as I got frustrated by the film’s skirting of its bigger ideas.

So let’s begin with the film’s conceit, which is so good and propulsive that it gives the film an energy and strength it never truly loses. Three Billboards is the story of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, who hasn’t been given a role this good since Fargo, and who brings an incredible performance with her) who leases three billboards outside of her small Missouri town in order to castigate and shame the local police force for its failure to figure out who assaulted and killed her daughter. It’s not hard to empathize with McDormand’s anger, which is palpable in nearly every frame and every interpersonal interaction; her loss (and its attending injustice) has stuck to her and left her in a constant state of impotent rage, one that directs itself to anyone unfortunate enough to be around her.

But the first sign that Three Billboards is more complicated and fascinating than you might expect comes in how it handles its police force. Because while our first impression of the force comes by way of Sam Rockwell’s belligerent, abusive officer, it becomes clear that the police are more accurately embodied by Woody Harrelson’s compassionate, dedicated police chief, who has clearly done his utmost on this case to no avail. And while much of Three Billboards should be experienced cold, suffice to say that McDonagh slowly reveals information about the chief that makes McDormand’s public shaming all the more problematic and complicated.

It would be easy to handwave Three Billboards aside as “both sides-ism” gone mad, a film where no one is right or wrong entirely, and instead are so polarized that they refuse to acknowledge the good points of the other side. But that’s not what this film has in mind; instead, while it’s nominally a film about this injustice and failed police investigation, it’s more than anything a film about how anger and grief can poison us emotionally, keeping us from being able to interact with the world around us and shutting down the very bonds that we need to have in our lives. And in a time and age when it’s so easy to be angry and frustrated and rage-filled at the slightest look at the news, McDonagh’s points about the toxicity of that are timely, trenchant, and valid.

And yet, that also finds the film grappling with Rockwell’s character, initially presented as the worst kind of police officer: abusive (both physically and verbally), racist, incompetent, and lazy. Rockwell brings an incomparable amount to the role, making it come to life as more than just comic relief, but also opening the door for the way the film complicates him, showing him as much a product of anger as McDormand in some ways. That’s a complicated choice, though, given how vile some of the things that Rockwell’s character is accused of, and can feel like the film wants to use toxic behaviors as “flavor text” and never really engage with them – and that’s before the final act begins to give him a sort of redemption arc that sits uneasily with me, no matter how good Rockwell is in the part.

For all of that, though, there’s little denying how successful Three Billboards is as a film. It moves like a rocket; the dialogue is every bit as good as you’d expect from McDonagh, shifting from pathos to vicious comedy to intensity without ever missing a beat; it’s beautifully filmed, with some knockout sequences; and the performances are truly incredible across the board, with McDormand giving one of the year’s best performances, and Rockwell and Harrelson being not far behind her. (And that doesn’t even get into the incredible supporting cast, which includes Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, and so many more great character actors.) Yes, I struggle with how the movie shies away from the very themes it introduces…but if you look at the film not as a piece of social commentary, but instead as a character study and a look at rage in the modern world, it succeeds on every other level. I laughed (very hard) throughout it; I found it moving and effective; and more than anything else, I can’t quite stop thinking about it. And maybe that’s the most effective point of all about it.

IMDb