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First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

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A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Phantom Thread (2017)

When the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced, one of the bigger surprises was the amount of love the Academy dished out for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. In hindsight, maybe this should have been more obvious considering the Oscar-friendly pedigree (Anderson a.k.a. PTA), the acting phenom (Daniel Day-Lewis), the setting (1950s), and the subject matter (obsessive artists). I had no real desire to see Phantom Thread after enduring PTA’s last two movies. I strongly disliked Inherent Vice and The Master, to the point that when I read about the love for either I can only stare at my feet, shake my head, and hope one day these defenders of rambling, plotless, pointless navel-gazing will come to their better senses. While not nearly ascending to the heights of his early, propulsive, deeply felt works, Phantom Thread is for me a marked improvement as a PTA film experience and an intriguing study in toxic desire.

In 1950s post-war London, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is famous for dressing movie stars, princesses, and the rich elite of the world. His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), acts as his business manager and personal manager, including kicking out the old muses who have overstayed their welcome. After a day out in the country, Reynolds becomes instantly smitten with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a foreign waitress. He pulls Alma into his highly secluded world. She lives in the Woodcock offices and he summons her at all hours, caught up in the madness of inspiration. Alma is overjoyed by the attention and adoration from such a famous and brilliant artist. It’s the kind of feeling she doesn’t want to end, and when Reynolds begins to lose interest with her, Alma will fight however she can to stay longer in this new and exciting world.

While this doesn’t have nearly the same amount of plot in comparison to early PTA, Phantom Thread at least held my interest and felt like what I was watching mattered. The character dynamics were compelling. Reynolds is a puzzle and we’re side-by-side with Alma trying to figure him out, suss his moods, and analyze why he is the way he is and how best to compensate. It becomes something like a portrait of a Great Artist who doesn’t operate on the same social and interpersonal levels as the rest of us, leaving Alma fumbling for stability. A breakfast in silence can become a battle of wills on the sound design team (you’ll never notice the sound of bread scraping like ever before). It’s not quite the thorough character study that There Will Be Blood purported to be, but Day-Lewis is as reliable an anchor for a movie as you’ll get in cinema. I was especially fascinated by the role of his sister, Cyril. She’s the gatekeeper to a very private world and knows the precise routines and preferences of her very fussy brother. She doesn’t necessarily approve of his actions but she sees them out, though occasionally she has to be more of the responsible one of the pair. Cyril is his lifeline, enabler, and enforcer. She treats Alma as a visitor into their home, further magnifying her worry about eventually being replaced by another muse for Reynolds. This insecurity is what drives much of the film’s second half as Alma tries everything she knows to assert power and influence so that she will not be unceremoniously craved out of this new special life for herself.

At its core Phantom Thread is an exploration of the stubborn artistic process and the toxic relationship of chasing those mercurial, waning affections. It’s very easy to feel for Alma, a relative nobody plucked form obscurity and whisked away to a glamorous world of London’s fashion scene where she is the chief muse of a brilliant man. When he lays the full force of his attentions on her, it’s like feeling the warmth of the sun, and her world revolves around feeling that intensity. When his attention is elsewhere, Alma can feel lost and discarded, desperate to seek that warmth and fulfillment once more, though running into barriers because of Reynolds’ peculiar personal habits and demands. She plans a surprise romantic dinner that Reynolds resents, and he congratulates himself on the “gallantry” of eating his asparagus with butter instead of the salt he normally likes. Reynolds is a powerful figure who casts a powerful shadow. You feel for Alma as she tries again and again to find the exact formula for pleasing and comforting this obsessive man given to routines. She’s tying to crack the code back into Reynolds good graces. He’s an inscrutable force and one Alma is willing to genuflect to for his affections. Because of this dynamic, much of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and fail to impress or win back the attentions of Reynolds, which is part fascinating and part humiliating. The film explores Reynolds’ history of burning through his shiny new muses, relying upon the iron-hearted determination of his sister to finally push out the discarded lovers/muses. For Reynolds, his muses follow the cyclical pattern of a love affair, the excitement and discovery of something new, the possibilities giving way to artistic breakthroughs, and then what once seemed en vogue is now yesterday’s old fashion.

Because of this tight narrative focus, the film does become repetitious in its second half, finding more ways to expound upon the same ideas already presented. Reynolds is a jerk. His process is of utmost importance and must not be altered. Alma is struggling to make herself more essential and less expendable in his orbit. She doesn’t want to end up like all the other prim women who have been elbowed out of the spotlight. She’s feisty and pushy and will challenge Reynolds, and this doesn’t usually work out well. While the strength of the acting never wavers, the plot does feel like it reaches a ceiling, which makes the film feel like it’s coasting for far too long (and it’s also far too long). It feels like Alma is fighting an unwinnable battle and after all her efforts she’ll just be another muse in a history of muses. That’s probably why Anderson gooses his third act with a thriller turn and with a specific plot device I’ve weirdly seen a lot in 2017. It feels like this plot turn is going to disrupt the cycle of Reynolds affections, and then as things begin reverting back to the old Reynolds, it all feels so hopelessly Sisyphean. And then, dear reader, the literal last few minutes almost save this entire movie’s lethargic second half. It’s a new turn that made me go, “Ohhhhh,” in interest, and it redefined the relationship and power dynamic between Alma and Reynolds in an intriguing way. It says a little something about the relationship between self-sacrifice and self-sabotage and how the power of giving can approach perverse levels of distorted self-fulfillment.

The biggest selling point of any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is the man himself. He’s literally only been in four movies over the last decade, and in two of them he’s won Best Actor Oscars and was just nominated for another with Phantom Thread (Gary Oldman has that thing in the bag this year, though). The excellence of Day-Lewis is beyond dispute, and yet I would argue that Day-Lewis is pushed aside by the acting power of Krieg (A Most Wanted Man). This woman commands your attention enough that she can go toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and win. She’s the worst at holding back her emotions and playing games, which makes her the most affecting to watch. When her romantic dinner goes badly, you can feel her reaching for reason, thinking out loud, her eyes glassy with uncertainty. When she’s speaking in an interview about her relationship with Reynolds, the warmth in Krieg radiates out from her. The other standout is Manville (Harlots) who does an incredible amount with mere looks. She can be withering. It’s a performance as controlled as Alma is uncontrolled, relying on the facade of calm to operate through a manufactured space of rules and expectations. And yes Day-Lewis is terrific. It’s also the first time he’s used his natural speaking voice in decades on screen.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie is about the world of fashion but it’s really about three characters jostling for understanding, attention, and control. We follow the tumultuous power dynamics of an artist-muse-lover relationship and the toxic implications it has on Alma as she struggles to maintain her position. The second half can get a bit repetitious and feel rudderless, but the eventual ending and wealth of great acting makes it an arguably justified journey. I lamented that Anderson was no longer making movies for me with the lurch he had taken with The Master and Inherent Vice in particular. He doesn’t have to make movies for me at all, but it was this sad realization that made me feel like I was undergoing a breakup with an eclectic artist I had loved tremendously in my younger days (Boogie Nights remains one of my favorites). Phantom Thread doesn’t exactly return things back to the way they used to be but it at least rights the ship, offering a mild course correction with a movie that is accessible and substantive. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last movie, at least it was better than Nine.

Nate’s Grade: B

Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

The Post (2017)

Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

I, Tonya (2017)

Back in 1994, popular culture was rabidly obsessed with figure skating thanks to Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the “bad girl” who was accused of coordinating an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya’s skuzzy husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), had hired a friend to “intimidate” Kerrigan, and the end result was a broken knee and the world-famous outcry of, “Why?!” I, Tonya takes a look at the players of this media circus and lets them tell their own stories in their own words.

I,Tonya feels brazenly like a Scorsese movie populated with kooky Coen brothers characters. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) cribs from the best and uses all those propulsive camera moves, voice over leading to fourth-wall-breaking, and music needle drops to draw an audience into this crackling crime story. The biggest decision made by screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) is the dueling perspectives of Tonya and Jeff being given equal treatment. They both sit for a series of on-camera interviews and will even interrupt the flashbacks to object. Jeff will recount a time Tonya chased him around with a loaded shotgun, and then Tonya will turn to the camera and argue that this moment never happened. I, Tonya doesn’t tell you who to believe and who to doubt. The account will purposely contradict one another, often demonizing the other party and painting themselves as a larger victim of fate. The movie is steadily entertaining as it mixes moments of light and dark. Tonya breaking the fourth wall to talk about her domestic abuse is another way of showing just his disassociated she’s become to a life of abuse. It turns fourth wall break into coping mechanism. I was laughing at the buffoonery of Jeff’s goons and moved by the relentless torment of Tonya. It’s a story that’s worth revisiting and is given an invigorating sheen of inept crime thriller. Gillespie goes a little too hard with the Scorsese speed ramp zooms and quantity of literal song selections, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment impact.

This is a film about reassessing preconceived notions about who the characters are, what the story exactly is, and where the truth lies amidst all the madness. Tonya scoffs, “There is no such thing as truth,” as if she were channeling the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. This becomes a foundational thesis of the movie as we’re presented with conflicting personal accounts where characters will break the fourth wall to criticize the validity of what they are doing or saying. All of these conflicting accounts force the audience to constantly reconsider what we are seeing and being told. We have to consistently think about the source and how there might be bias at play. As expected, Tonya and Jeff’s differing versions of events paint the other as more knowingly duplicitous. Tonya flat-out accuses Jeff of years of physical abuse, the kind of relationship Tonya’s vicious mother had primed her for. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would say all of her cruel hostility was valuable in an ends-justify-the-means crucible. Through fighting to earn the approval of an abusive authority figure, Tonya became one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, the first to achieve the vaulted triple axle. LaVona shouts that “nice” doesn’t get you anything in this world (her own mother was nice and LaVona became a waitress). People throughout I, Tonya are reshaping worldviews, angling for sympathy, and spinning history for personal advantage. Everyone wants to be a victim, a martyr, or at least the person who was right in the end. By the end, you don’t know what exactly to believe and whose truth is closest.

This was a media scandal that the public gladly gobbled up every new morsel, bringing out the knives to carve up a villain served up on the Olympic stage, but I, Tonya is a very empathetic portrayal that still doesn’t take the edge off of its title heroine. She grew up poor and scrappy and had to make her own costumes for her skating performances. From a technical standpoint, Tonya Harding could out skate anyone, but she didn’t fit into the cookie cutter beauty pageant image of what a wholesome girl should represent. The same bias against her, the trailer trash girl who couldn’t catch a break, was still dragging her down even when her skating was superior to her competitors. It definitely helps to paint a sympathetic portrayal for the woman, and that’s even before the years of abusive relationships, and a husband she may have returned to in order to appear more “wholesome family.” It’s easy to castigate Tonya Harding as a villain, but it’s even harder to see the person inside the caricature that was sold for mass media consumption.

The use of humor has to be very delicate because of all the controversial material. We have naturally offbeat characters doing incredibly stupid things, and then we have a husband repeatedly hitting his wife. This seesaw of tone means that the comedy needs to be precise or else it will undercut the drama or, worse, cross into gross mitigation of abuse. LaVona is a popular source for verbal abuse, and it’s meant to be shocking, but at no point do I think the film trivializes the conditions of Tonya’s childhood for ironic comic fodder. It’s presenting an abnormal treatment of an abnormal upbringing, and the later detours with “The Incident” are highlighting the naturally cracked criminals. These people were not good at what they were doing and were easily caught. The nimwits-try-their-hands-at-crime subgenre is ripe for laughter, in particular Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and his self-professed masterful skills at counter terrorism planning. The Tonya Harding scandal is so inherently sensational and with so many bizarre, colorful characters that to treat it without its penchant of natural humor would be a disservice. Crazy people doing dumb things are going to tend to have some humor value. Where the film falls short is in the realm of media satire. There are a few tasty morsels sprinkled throughout, like LaVona forcing reporters to stand behind a rope line if they wanted to snap her picture, but overall the media satire feels flat. Bobby Cannavale (Spy) feels completely wasted as a Hard Copy reporter/exposition device. He offers few insights and fewer colorful anecdotes. The most pointed the film gets with media commentary is when Tonya looks directly into the camera and accuses each person of being her abuser. It’s a stark turn that stops the action cold, and the audience has to think about their own tacit approval through media consumption. By rewarding this coverage and the easily packaged version of events, have we all played a part in Tonya’s suffering and shame?

Robbie (Suicide Squad) is sensational in the role, eliciting so much emotion that it can instill whiplash. One moment you’re impressed by the depth of her vulnerability and the next you’re whistling at her hard-as-nails persona and sheer tenacity. It’s an unapologetic performance that goes dark places and serious places, but Robbie doesn’t stoop to pander. Tonya wants your empathy but she doesn’t want your pity, and she sure as hell isn’t going to pretend to be somebody she’s not. The tricky part is the question over who is Tonya Harding. With Robbie, she’s a profane firebrand who is impatient with a world that refuses to accept her and her talents. The scene where Tonya is stripped of ever competing again in professional figure skating is a dazzling piece of acting on Robbie’s part. Tonya has sacrificed much of her own life for this sport, and by her own admission she doesn’t know how to do anything else. To see it all go away with the pound of a gavel, she pleads for jail instead as a more humane punishment. This feels like Robbie marking her grand entrance into the next acting echelon in Hollywood.

The supporting roles nicely serve their purpose, with Janney (The Girl on the Train) being the obvious standout. Her hellish mother is overpowering in every sense. Janney is abrasive and fierce and a crutch for the screenplay when it needs something shocking. I do not doubt the voracity of what the Tonya and other participants have said about LaVona, but the filmmakers don’t know when to leave enough alone. There are insights to be had through LaVona’s relationship with her daughter but it’s too often one-note. She’s the angry older woman berating people for shock, comedy, or a transition.

I, Tonya might change your mind about Tonya Harding. She’s definitely unrepentant in the movie while at the same time asking you to view her with an empathy that was lacking during the parade of 1990s tabloids. She’s an abuse survivor who had to claw for every advantage she could earn. You might not like her, or maybe you’ll grow to appreciate her, but you will understand her better. Robbie is outstanding, Janney is highly memorable and perfectly cast, and the direction provides plenty of jolts, from electric camerawork to the energetic propulsion through its diverging viewpoints. The dark comedy works, the serious drama works, and the domestic violence is not trivialized with so many ironic winks. I, Tonya is an unflinching expose that forces you to question the validity of everything. It’s a movie that dares you to question your perceptions while you’re keenly watching. Perhaps twenty years later, Tonya Harding will get whatever she is due.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Shape of Water (2017)

You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.

From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.

The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.

The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.

The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.

While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.

Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.

When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Disaster Artist (2017)

As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.

I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.

This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.

Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.

James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.

The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.

If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.

The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.

McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.

The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.

Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lady Bird (2017)

Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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