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The Disaster Artist (2017)

They say Hollywood loves movies about movies, so I guess that’s why we the people have been gifted with The Disaster Artist, another entry in the genre of self-validating cinema. Unlike award-winning but limited appeal fare like Birdman and The Artist, The Disaster Artist benefits from its mainstream stars and the growing profile of cult hit The Room to tell the story about the worst movie ever made. It’s done with obvious affection by director James Franco and his usual suspects, brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and stars like Zac Efron, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow, who stand in for cameos.

Franco cares deeply for his characters and admires them not in spite of their wackiness but because of it. The lead oddball is Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself. The mysterious auteur behind The Room is someone who could easily be played for laughs. An aspiring actor of unknown age or origin, Wiseau attacks his art with abandon, always with embarrassing and unsatisfactory results. Whether he is growling his way through the Stella scene in A Streetcar Named Desire or mounting a sprawling production of his poorly written and poorly conceived movie, he is singularly focused on extracting the purest, rawest emotion out of every performance.

I have to wonder if Franco sees something of himself in Wiseau, a fellow truth-seeker willing not just to push the boundaries of convention but to crash through them. The actor has made his own mark with his unconventional behavior and try anything attitude. His off-screen pursuits include university lecturer, multimedia artist, short story writer, and painter of nudes. Adopting Wiseau’s stilted mannerisms and speech patterns and donning a stringy wig and facial prosthetics seem par for course. This may be why, for all its chances to do so, the movie never descends into mockery. Quite the opposite, a joy and earnest humor shine through in the filmmaking.

And yet, that underdog spirit keeps The Disaster Artist from ever maturing as a film. In the end, it doesn’t rise above its characters’ eccentricities. Wiseau remains a mystery, as impenetrable as ever. That might be excusable if Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), his friend and acting partner, were more than a fawning, angsty fanboy. His character is disappointing, not because of Franco the Younger doesn’t deliver; he’s rather charming as a timid actor who gets swept up in Wiseau’s delusions. It’s because the film doesn’t address in a satisfying way why Greg is so enamored with his mentor. You sympathize with his mom (Megan Mullally), and really most of the other characters – the script supervisor cum director (Rogen), Greg’s girlfriend (Alison Brie), the costume assistant (Charlyne Yi), all of whom question Greg’s association, and their own, with Wiseau.

Perhaps I just don’t have the passion for creating art. I certainly don’t presume to understand actors’ motivations for doing what they do. Maybe that’s why I need Greg’s infatuation with acting laid out more plainly. When Wiseau goads a wide-eyed Greg into performing a monologue from their coffee shop booth, I’m inclined to sympathize with the patrons rather than with the artists disturbing the peace. I wish the movie had strained less for authenticity and more for depth of character. It’s an uncritical love letter, which doesn’t make it a bad film but not a great one.

Released: 2017
Prod: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Dir: James Franco
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, lots of cameos
Time: 103 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.

The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.

It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.

The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.

Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.

“This is Halloween”:

“Jack’s Lament”:

Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:

“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:

“Making Christmas”:

“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:

“Sally’s Song”:

“Finale/Reprise”:

Released: 1993
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Dirty Grandpa (2016)

I’ll concede that at its most basic Dirty Grandpa has a respectable premise. An elderly man faces some hard truths about his life after losing his wife of over forty years. He comes to terms with his failings as a father. He longs for companionship and sexual fulfillment in his final years. He tries pass some of this wisdom on to his grandson, who is diving headfirst into a miserable life, trapped in a job he hates and with a wife he doesn’t love.

But what the actual hell is this movie? What the hell is Robert I-have-two-Oscars De Niro doing in this movie, which is, let’s be honest, an overturned porta potty masquerading as a film. There are real problems in this world, causes that could have benefited from Dirty Grandpa’s $25 million budget, and instead humanity got this crass, embarrassing, and unfunny piece of celluloid fecal matter that offends at every turn.

Where do I even begin? Perhaps with an early scene featuring Dick, De Niro’s aptly named character, who is masturbating like it’s just another part of his morning exercise routine. His uptight grandson, Jason (Zac Efron), catches him mid-jerk right before they head off to Boca Raton. Dick has guilted Jason into accompanying him, explaining that the trip is one he and his deceased wife made every year. Jason, nervous about his upcoming wedding with the controlling Meredith (Julianne Hough), reluctantly agrees.

Dick goes on the offensive, mocking Jason for everything from his job as a corporate lawyer to his having to borrow his fiancée’s powder pink Mini, which he christens a giant labia. He seems to take it as a personal insult that his grandson isn’t an abusive, profane hornball like he is. When they run into Jason’s old classmate, Shadia (Zoey Deutch), and her friends, Dick immediately decides to have sex with one of them, Lenore (Aubrey Plaza). I don’t know if you can call it a match because the age difference is, well, very large, but Lenore proves to be as sexually aggressive as Dick, so hey, consenting adults. The party ends up in Daytona Beach since bad behavior is apparently the norm there. While Dick is partying it up, Jason gets into all sorts of trouble, the kind that doesn’t usually befall a straight-laced boat shoe-wearing guy who handles LLC agreements and SCC compliance.

As awful and desperate as this movie is, and it takes raunchy to stratospheric levels, it’s most disappointing because there are genuine, heartfelt moments lobbed into this mess. This was the sixth in my “Zac Efron is a good actor” movie marathon, and I rather like serious, anti-frat boy Zac. He plays bemused and emotionally fragile very well, maybe because it contrasts with the image of a supposedly dim, cocky pretty boy. Even De Niro and Plaza find a way, albeit at the very end, to make their relationship seem real, or at least more than an accident of overcharged libidos.

But none of this excuses the humiliation, homophobia, racism, and sexism that the writers fling with childish joy and that mostly De Niro delivers with reckless abandon. I thought a gag with a penis swastika and a rabbi was pretty bad, but I’m going to say the worst is Dick’s treatment of Bradley, Shadia and Lenore’s black, gay friend. Dick hurls insult after insult, but the writers have the nerve to make him come off as the enlightened one when he protects Bradley from some bigots. Um, no points for Dirty Grandpa.

Released: 2016
Prod: Bill Block, Michael Simkin, Jason Barrett, Barry Josephson
Dir: Dan Mazer
Writer: John M. Phillips
Cast: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Aubrey Plaza, Zoey Deutch, Julianne Hough, Dermot Mulroney, Jason Mantzoukas, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Baywatch (2017)

It is a truth not universally acknowledged, but one that damn well should be, that Zac Efron is a good actor. He may not be in the Oscar Isaac league of millennial thespians, but Malibu Ken, as he’s been called in several movies, can hold his own with or without his shirt on. After falling under his spell in The Greatest Showman, I used my Easter holiday to dive into Efron’s back catalogue, a holy pursuit indeed. I’m constantly surprised by how he manages to turn a mediocre character from an even more mediocre movie into someone worth rooting for.

Case and point – Baywatch. Savaged by critics and largely ignored by the masses, the movie failed to live up to expectations, those being a TV-to-film reboot in the 21 Jump Street mold. Like the successful and hilarious 2012 film starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, this movie also catered to a younger generation, one that probably didn’t grow up watching Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff flit half-naked across the beach. Baywatch makes clear attempts at self-aware humor; you can tell the filmmakers want to take an old hit show about hot lifeguards and repackage it into a new hit movie about, well, hot lifeguards but ones with a heart and smarts.

Retro has its limits though. Like its lead character, Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), the movie is at times too self-righteous. It wants to show off the Baywatch enterprise as something more than large, bouncy anatomy. These guys aren’t just sexy lifeguards; they are also medical professionals and police detectives. They can save lives and bust up a drug ring, which is their main work in this movie. After entrepreneur Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) muscles in and buys up all the beachfront businesses, the Baywatch team link her to several deaths and a wave of drug use. Rather than waiting for Sergeant Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to take the lead, they begin their own investigation.

A little mystery is all good and well, and so is a bit of raunchy comedy to help things along. But there’s a line between poking fun at the source material and three minute scenes about getting one’s junk stuck in a beach chair, or harassing coworkers in a coed shower, or digging into a dead man’s privates. Shock does not in and of itself equal funny, and there are precious few laughs to be had.

Character development is also lacking, if anyone was expecting that. Most of the lifeguards show themselves to be compassionate people, and I wouldn’t mind them patrolling any beach I was on. But I was disappointed that Ilfenesh Hadera, who plays Stephanie, Mitch’s second-in-command, disappears for stretches. She’s competent and beautiful but isn’t partnered with anyone, so I guess that means no extra sexy screen time for her. To my surprise, Johnson did not add anything positive to the film. Mitch is eye-rollingly sanctimonious and kind of a bully.

Which brings us back to Zac Efron. His character, Brody, is a disgraced Olympic champion experiencing a bit of a rough patch. Brody shows up to Baywatch having been promised a job in order to raise the team’s profile, and because it’s part of some plea agreement. Everyone is quick to dismiss him as the pretty boy swimmer, especially new boss Mitch, but no one wants to cut him some slack even though he is clearly going through some issues. Efron outdoes everyone in the movie though by actually making me care about his cocky, self-absorbed character. He opens up by drops, never really milking the drama of Brody’s backstory, which only makes it that much more effective. Sometimes it’s like Efron is acting in a different movie, one that is worthier of his dramatic talents.

Released: 2017
Prod: Ivan Reitman, Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Gregory J. Bonann, Beau Flynn
Dir: Seth Gordon
Writer: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass, Hannibal Buress, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

Most Christmas movies aim to show you what Christmas should be; A Very Murray Christmas presents Christmas as it is – boozy, off-key, and slightly disappointing. This hour-long Netflix special is not the kind of light entertainment meant to rally the family around the TV, but it’s a fresh alternative to the cheery, maudlin fare that’s usually on offer this time of year. Bill Murray, playing himself, gathers an assortment of his famous friends and they proceed to sing and sigh the night away. As you wonder what you’re watching, you may also find yourself unexpectedly warmed by this off-beat production.

The story, insomuch as there is one, takes the form of a live Christmas special shot from the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Unfortunately, a massive snow storm has paralyzed the city and threatens the entire eastern seaboard leaving Murray without his superstar guest friends. He refuses to proceed as a solo act, but with minutes until air, his shouty producers (Amy Poehler and Julie White) tell him that he’ll be on the hook financially if he doesn’t go on with the show, and so he does. Chris Rock just happens to be out and about this night, and strolling right past the Carlyle the very moment Murray is thinking of bailing. Murray all but kidnaps the unsuspecting comic, holding him hostage with a camera, a mike, and a matching Christmas sweater. In a sign of what is to come, the two perform a warbly, screechy rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

To say that not much happens thereafter would be accurate but also underselling the affair. A power outage soon forces the production to shut down, putting everyone in a much merrier mood. Murray makes his way to the lounge with his pianist, Paul Shaffer (Paul Shaffer), and they pass the time singing and drinking with the other trapped guests. One is a melancholy bride (Rashida Jones) and her fiancé (Jason Schwartzman), who see not only their wedding ruined but possibly their entire relationship. Then there’s a lounge singer played by Maya Rudolph, supplementing her musical talent with throaty gusto. Murray also takes to a nameless waitress (Jenny Lewis) who liquors him up and agrees to duet, placating him even further. Meanwhile, the kitchen staff (Phoenix) are roiled by the mountains of food going to waste. But then they ferry it into the lounge, serenade the crowd, and all is well again because there’s nothing food, music, and the company of strangers can’t fix.

That is not the message, but for an hour, it might as well be. The unexpected randomness of it all, including a drunken dream sequence featuring George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, is somehow very fitting for the season. I suspect lonely souls adrift in an urban winter (okay, myself) will find calm in this quiet chaos. The odd assortment actors and singers, the eccentric music program, the muted lighting, all are kindred spirits for someone who doesn’t want to drown in a plume of Christmas feels. Instead, an improvised sing-a-long to the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and the Beach Boys’ “Alone on Christmas Day”, performed here by the French band Phoenix, perfectly capture a different kind of holiday mood.

Despite the strong undercurrent of loneliness and disappointment, there is a lot of joy that breaks through. Murray punctuates his show with some signature quips and classic tunes set the mood, but it’s things like Jenny Lewis’s clear, sweet voice corralling the discordant ones that bring comfort. Or the tenderness of Jones and Schwartzman dueting “I Saw the Light” like they’ve been tricked by friends into making up over a session of karaoke. There’s a lot of low-key happiness that ripples through this special, made better by how unexpected those moments are.

“Do You Hear What I Hear” by Bill Murray and Chris Rock:

“Alone on Christmas Day” by Phoenix:

“I Saw the Light” by Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones with cast:

“Fairytale of New York” by cast:

“Sleigh Ride” by Bill Murray and Miley Cyrus:

“Santa Wants Some Lovin'” by Bill Murray and George Clooney:

Released: 2015
Prod: Lilly Burns, John Skidmore
Dir: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola, Mitch Glazer, Bill Murray
Cast: Bill Murray, Michael Cera, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Dimitri Dimitrov, David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Schaffer, Julie White, Phoenix
Time: 56 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017