The Disaster Artist (Franco; 2017)

Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Troll 2.  The Room. Ask any film lover what the worst film of all time is and you will most often get one of these three as your answer.  Whichever they answer will also be a film they will tell you you have to see to believe with a sort of gleeful sado-masochism glinting in their eye.  That’s because these films really aren’t the worst ever made, they are the most ineptly made. They are movies that make you wonder at how they could possibly have been made, at how any producer would willingly give money to such a project, and at how any director could have missed how horribly any single line of dialogue was delivered let alone every single line in an entire film.  In short, at how could a film in which every single element is so badly botched that individually they could have never passed muster in even the most mediocre of films, and yet here we have an entire film made up entirely of such elements.

If there’s anything Hollywood likes more than stories about itself, it’s an underdog story, so when Tim Burton made Ed Wood in 1994 about the director who made Plan 9 From Outer Space it was lavished with film awards and nominations.  Twenty-three years later it looks as if Hollywood history is about to repeat itself with The Disaster Artist, a film chronicling the life of The Room‘s creators Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero played by James Franco and his brother Dave Franco respectively.  The Disaster Artist starts in the late 90’s (1998 if I remember correctly) when Tommy and Greg first met in an acting class, and chronicles the story of their friendship and primarily on their decision to make their own movie as they get rejection after crushing rejection from Hollywood studios and talent agencies.

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I’ll just start with what makes The Disaster Artist a fantastic film, and that is James Franco.  He is not only the star of the film but also its director, and his attention to detail in both of these roles is borderline mind-boggling.   Just after the film’s finale but before the end credits begin to roll The Disaster Artist in a moment of entertaining and well-deserved bragging shows scenes from the actual film The Room and those same scenes as recreated in The Disaster Artist, and from the acting to the set design to the camera angles to the costumes everything is impressively close to spot on.

It’s in Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau, though, that the attention to detail really pays off.  Tommy Wiseau is James Franco’s Rain Man or Forrest Gump, except that where those characters were a dedicated performance of a series of quirks, Franco gives us a fully realized character in Wiseau who is most assuredly strange, but he’s also passionate, lonely, craves attention, is hard to work with, but is also incredibly generous.  Underneath the strange accent and tics is a fully realized, completely sympathetic person with a depth rarely seen in a film.  I’m sure it helped that the real Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are still here and had at least some interaction with the cast and crew of The Disaster Artist, but just because Franco had help most actors don’t get doesn’t make the performance any less impressive.

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The Disaster Artist is a comedy at its core, I would call it more comedy than drama at any rate, and it’s a film which could easily fall into mockery given its premise.  It doesn’t.  Watching Sestero and Wiseau bring their dream to life is hysterical, but the film always manages to take the high ground by focusing more on the passion and heart of its characters than on their ineptitude.  This makes the film into a skewed inspirational story with a message that seems to be saying the pursuit of our dreams is more important than the actual achieving of them, and who knows, you may still achieve greatness in the last way you want or expect despite yourself.

Do you need to have seen The Room in order to understand and enjoy The Disaster Artist?  I have seen The Room once before, some time ago, and part of me wishes that I hadn’t.  It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of The Disaster Artist in any way, far from it, but I believe that the experience each person has is going to vary greatly depending on whether they are a fanatic of The Room whose seen it over and over at midnight showings and at home, whether they’ve seen The Room a time or two and at least know what it is, and if they’ve never seen The Room at all.  The fanatic is going to see a movie about the creation of a thing they already know and love, the one-time viewer will get the story but won’t have near the investment, while the person who’s never seen The Room will get an off the wall inspirational biography.  All three of these people will get an entertaining, hilarious, and at times heartwarming movie, but all three will come away with an entirely different take away from the experience, and part of me wishes I could start at the beginning and experience The Disaster Artist from all three perspectives (though, I don’t know when I’d find the time and the energy to see all those midnight showings).

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Final verdict:  The Disaster Artist is just a little too oddball to be a film I recommend to everyone, but that’s the only reason I wouldn’t.  James Franco gives a performance so incredible he very well may garner his first Oscar, and while it’s more of a long shot, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him get a Best Director nomination, as well.   The Disaster Artist is both one of the best biopics and best comedies of the year, and that’s a combination you don’t see often at all.  If you’ve seen Ed Wood, you’ll already be familiar with what you’re getting in The Disaster Artist, but even then you will still be awed by the attention to detail in both the performances and the recreations.

 

 

Battle of the Sexes (Dayton & Faris; 2017)

The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front.  Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States.   The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches.  They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.

It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes.  The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game.   It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about.  This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.

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While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked.  Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did.  While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.

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The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction.  It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel.  It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition.  While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.

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With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that.  The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking.  This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Strongerrather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.

Final verdict:  Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all.  While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee.  Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.

Lights Out (Sandberg; 2016)

Horror is a genre that is particularly difficult to get right, and due to that reason, Hollywood often doesn’t care if it’s done right since most horror movies will at least make a little over their budget, horror being cheap to produce but relatively popular with audiences.  Most horror relies on jump scares to elicit a fight or flight reaction rather than true scares, characters making obviously bad decisions to move the plot along because if those in the film acted intelligently there would be no more story, and gore because it appeals to that part of us that likes seeing things we know we shouldn’t be.  Good horror movies rely on psychology to get their scares, the cheap tricks are sometimes there, but are more of a distraction and the real horror comes from, usually, the unknown, whether that unknown be a monster we’ve never seen before, something lurking just out of sight, or our senses being fooled into believing misinformation.  The very best horror films are just like good horror films, but they also are using our fear to allow us to experience very real world traumas and tribulations through the filter of metaphor.  Lights Out is an example of those very best horror films.

Lights Out on its surface is about a family being haunted by a feminine ghost like figure which only appears in darkness.  Turn the lights on, and she disappears, outside of lit areas, however, she is very real and very dangerous.  Without going into true spoilers, we also find out that this ghost-like woman seems to stalk only one particular family,

 While I will not reveal any details about the plot still, I cannot discuss this film anymore without at least giving clues as to what happens in the film, so if you want to remain 100% completely spoiler free skip to the last paragraph just above my rating.  If you don’t mind some hints when discussing themes or you’ve already seen Lights Out, then keep on reading.

and understanding what the meaning underneath the surface of the movie is the key to why that is.  This is a film that in a way has to be viewed inside out.  If we take it purely at face value, it’s an okay jorror film with some major flaws, but if you understand why Sandberg made this movie, you can see that what seem like flaws are smart decisions and making the film any other way would detract from what he is trying to accomplish.

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Past this point there will be things you may not want to see.

Lights Out is not a film about a ghost, or fear of the dark, or any typical horror trope, but rather it’s a film about the way a member of a family with a mental illness can make those closest to them suffer.  It had to be done as a horror film, because to do it any other way would seem too insensitive to the person suffering from mental illness as this movie is not meant to evoke any sympathy for them, but instead to show what those around them go through.  Sometimes people are unable to take the struggle of trying to help a loved one, and they leave and never come back, an option not available to the children who have a parent suffering from madness.

Looking at Lights Out as a film just trying to scare us, it’s still good, but it leaves a lot unanswered.  Looking at it as a metaphor, however, and we see that those things unanswered not only don’t need to be answered, but would actually detract from the film’s purpose if they were addressed.  It’s not a question of leaving the unknown as the unknown to elicit fear, either, it’s because those things left unanswered are there purely to further the plot and are not part of the overall themes of a family dealing with mental illness.  To answer those things left open ended by film’s end would definitely be possible, but would distract from the message director and writer Sandberg is giving to us.

The cast all does a good job, and of special note is Gabriel Bateman as the youngest sibling in the family, Martin.  While no performance here is particularly great, they are all solid and Gabriel may do the best job of all despite the fact that he is only, well I’m not sure exactly how old, but very low double digits in age at the very most.  David Sandberg as the film’s director and writer of the original short film (Eric Helsserer is the writer of this screenplay) is the real star of Lights Out.  It seems he was given limited resources to make his movie, and he used every one of them to their greatest effect making a movie that relies on what’s not seen rather than on special effects, on action and dialogue rather than on A-list stars, and on claustrophobia rather than expansive sets.

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Okay, here’s where you can all start reading again.

I have no idea if Lights Out will ultimately end up being a classic of horror, but aside from big names being attached it has all the makings of a movie that should be.  It does scare, it scares the bejeesus out of you and that’s coming from someone who is aware of horror movie tricks and rarely falls for them, but more importantly it scares you for a reason.  When you walk out of Lights Out you haven’t just been entertained, you’ve been shown what life is like for far too many around the world who have to suffer alongside a family member in pain.  That is what horror movies are for, to entertain, yes, but also to make us understand what we normally cannot perceive without help.  If you are the type that hates loose ends and need every detail wrapped up by movie’s end, you will be annoyed by this one, I guarantee it.  If you can put that aside, though, you are in for a treat.

Rating:  8.2 out of 10