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Destroying Success, and the American Town as a Biblical Fable

The Disaster Artist

director: James Franco

If you can believe it (I still can’t), there is now a movie about disastrous movie dictator Tommy Wiseau, director of The Room, the worst movie ever made. James Franco’s long been known as an artist that hasn’t entirely fit in Hollywood’s system, so in recent years he went off and directed 18 films, all of which you’ve never seen, and never will. Here he finds a perfect muse in Wiseau. The Disaster Artist, based on the book of the making of The Room, takes the mold of a film about trying to succeed in Hollywood, and it also might be the funniest film since Step Brothers (2008). The laughs per scene ratio is up there with the best of any modern comedy.

Filled top to bottom with fun cameos, Franco and co. make the film feel you’re apart of Hollywood’s biggest inside joke. Those unfamiliar with Wiseau or The Room won’t quite “get it,” but for the initiated it plays like a fun ode to dreams and being a fan of cult movies. Franco directed the entire film in character as Tommy Wiseau, who also starred, wrote and directed his own film, The Room. This performative obsession gives the film a meta symmetry about a misunderstood artist making a movie about a lonely man, who himself was making a movie because he was misunderstood. The film’s quick pace and focus on the story’s broad comedic elements stop it from seriously digging into these meta-ideas about performance and art (strangely, this could’ve been a sort of 8 ½), but they exist on the surface in the very act of this movie even existing.

If you asked Tommy Wiseau about a movie being made about him, he’d say, “ha ha of course Hollywood make big movie about me!” Occasionally the film slips into being imitative, and mostly plays more like bullet points of how The Room came to be made, but these are economical choices that end up making it work like an underdog sports movie, for better and worse. Don’t expect a film anywhere near as dynamic or well rounded as Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton’s masterpiece about a disastrous artist, but The Disaster Artist is a hilarious in-joke that raises the question, “If an artist makes something the expresses themselves, how can they fail, regardless of objective quality?” For those familiar with Wiseau and his disasterpiece, this will be pulled off the shelf to watch just as much as The Room.

Grade: B

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

director: Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh’s third film (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is about a grieving mother whose daughter was rape and murdered, so she buys three local billboards that bluntly asks the police why they haven’t caught the murderer. It’s a film that feels born in the flames of the zeitgeist, and yet, the script was written in 2012.

Seeing a McDonagh film is more about hearing than it is watching. He shoots for the same musical dialogue that you find in Tarantino or Coen brothers films, but this plays more like a Kidz Bop version of them. Billboards has been met with backlash to its handling of race, and I do find much of that critique valid, but McDonagh’s aim here is more deeply rooted than simply trying to mine 2017 America. As Frances McDormand’s Mildred sends the town into a politicized hellfire of opinions and outrage, McDonagh moves his characters like they’re pieces on a chess board. He messily searches for empathy in hatred, humor in sadness, wisdom in acts of violence. The effect is one that doesn’t feel political, but biblical (McDonagh’s films and plays bleed Catholicism).

Set in a small town, in no specific year, and with heightened, unbelievable characters and violence, the film feels like a modern biblical tale about the dangerous road to forgiveness and healing. While too obnoxious and broad — with a maybe misguided understanding of the American small town — McDonagh’s crudely funny dialogue refuses to give the audience black and white morality. It lunges further into the gray through character’s violent actions, searching for some catharsis or answer, even if it makes the film messier and more problematic as a result.

McDonagh’s use of music swings between excitement and melancholic irony, to the point that the music almost feels like it’s speaking to the film’s characters, trying to tell them something, but they’re not listening. Sam Rockwell gives a standout performance as a racist cop who’s the most overtly despicable character, and also the one that McDonagh, for better and worse, uses to pivot the film into a strangely moving area. This gray worldview is violent in its confrontation of violence, and the sort of imperfect, but daring American cinema that rarely makes its way into theaters. While it’s a much rougher, less potent film than McDonagh’s all-timer, In Bruges (2008), Three Billboards stumbles through American truths that are guarded by years of hate.

Grade: B

 

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