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The Disaster Artist

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Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) suffers from a lack of confidence. His new friend Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), a flamboyant eccentric of dubious origins, does not suffer from that issue, although he is hampered by a staggering deficit of talent and a strangled accent that he insists is from New Orleans. The two decamp from San Francisco to Los Angeles to try to make it as actors, but find tinseltown a tough nut to crack. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to write and direct his own movie, a melodrama in the mould of American classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, a searing psychological passion play he will pour his heart and soul into.

That movie is The Room, now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here’s the surprising thing about The Disaster Artist: it’s not mean. The cult that has gathered around Wiseau’s inept opus is a broad church, but for a lot of people the appeal is simply mockery – The Room is a singularly terrible work, failing on every conceivable technical and creative level, and it’s fun to laugh long and loud at this kind of unaware buffoonery.

However, working from Sestero’s memoir, director and star James Franco eschews the easy path and instead makes sure that we never forget the humanity of the people we’re pointing at. These are real folks with real aspirations, even though those dreams may exceed their grasp by a very long stretch. That includes the mercurial, often bizarre Wiseau, who remains a figure of mystery to this very day (although the documentary Room Full of Spoons, suppressed by court order, has a lot to say about Wiseau’s origins). We never get inside Wiseau’s head – good lord, imagine that! – but he remains a figure who elicits sympathy if not empathy. A lot of that is down to a fantastic performance by Franco, who leans into Wiseau’s outre mannerisms and tics – how could you not? – but still never forgets to imbue him with an inner life, even if that life might be completely unknowable to anyone outside his skin. Franco’s Wiseau approaches filmmaking like he approaches the world: with unfettered confidence and a seemingly alien set of axioms and assumptions. Asked whether he will shoot on digital or film, he boldly chose both, despite the technical impossibility that implies. Spying a big shot producer in a restaurant, Tommy just starts doing Streetcar at his tableside until security intervenes. An acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk, only one of a murderers’ row of cameos) tells the lank, scarecrow-like Wiseau that his shortcut to fame is to play monsters and villains, a la Lugosi or Karloff, but in Tommy’s mind he’s the romantic hero, and the world is at fault for not seeing that. He leaves everything out on the field in pursuit of his impossible dream – can we blame him?

It’d be an absolute tragedy if it wasn’t so funny, and yes, The Disaster Artist is straight up hilarious. Faithful fans of The Room will marvel at Franco’s nigh-perfect recreations (a side-by-side comparison crops up at the end to really drive it home) but even newcomers will be hard-pressed not to hoot at the goings on, with Wiseau’s antics anchored by the wry observations of crew members played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who act as a kind of jaded Greek chorus. Dave Franco’s Sestero gets fewer laughs, but functions as the heart of the movie: a modestly talented aspiring actor like countless others, both buoyed and hamstrung by his loyalty to the weird Wiseau. Sestero’s defining characteristic is that he’s a nice guy, endlessly supportive of his friends and loyal to a fault – a trait that ultimately sees him tied to the mast of the good ship Wiseau, come hell or high water. There’s a scene where Sestero shaves off his beard that, contextually, might be the saddest thing seen on screen this year this side of Lion.

Ultimately The Disaster Artist is about a friendship, albeit a strange and arguably damaging one. The received wisdom is to double feature it with The Room, which seems obvious, but Withnail & I might be a more thematically resonant running mate, detailing as it does a similarly cockeyed relationship (we’ll allow Ed Wood as well, obvious though it might be). In focusing on the emotional dynamics rather than the chaos, The Disaster Artist has managed a truly impressive feat of metatextuality: turning what was a one note joke into something much more nuanced and moving.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Disaster Artist


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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The exotic, plastic-brick, vaguely Asian-y city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil, four-armed Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of shark-themed minions. Luckily, the city is protected by a team of six ninja warriors who pilot giant Lego robots – think Power Rangers but, y’know, Lego-y. Unbeknownst to all, the six heroes are in fact teenagers at Ninjago High School who have been trained by the inscrutable Master Wu (Jackie “my cheque, please” Chan). And doubly unbeknownst, one of their number, the Green Ninja, is in fact Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), whose familial link to the would-be conqueror makes him a social outcast. However, when Garmadon actually manages to conquer to city, Lloyd and his teammates must look deep within themselves to… ah, you get the gist.

It took three directors, six credited writers, and seven people under the dubious “story by” banner to come up with The LEGO Ninjago Movie‘s rather soulless and generic story, and perhaps those numbers are indicative of the root problem: it feels like it’s designed by a committee with a firm grasp of market demographics and a dismal understanding of plot, character, and purposefulness.

We were two for two with Lord and Miller’s excellent The LEGO Movie and Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie, both of which transcended their presumed “kids movie” genre box to become something across-the-board entertaining and, even more surprising, meaningful.

Ninjago doesn’t do that.

What it does is squander an incredibly talented voice cast (Michael Pena, Kumail Najiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn) on a stunningly hoary hero’s journey, wrapped in a weird Orientalist mythology that is happy to swipe the visual cues from Chinese and Japanese culture and history, but draws the line at actually foregrounding characters from those cultures; all the actors of Asian descent are in supporting roles, while culturally Ninjago feels like Southern California by way of the Shaw Brothers backlot – it’s very, very American.

The world feels ramshackle and forced – there’s a fine line between the freewheeling creativity of The LEGO Movie, which managed to incorporate huge and varying swathes of pop culture and still feel of a piece. Problems start right out of the gate when we’re served a live action framing device ala The Neverending Story in which Jackie Chan, as charming and avuncular as ever, drops wisdom on a bullied child – how this ties in to the plastic brick universe of the main narrative is never made clear, nor is the “physics” or “cosmology” of the Ninjago setting (that may sound high-minded but, again, reflect on The LEGO Movie, which pulled off a stunning late-act reveal by connecting the “real” and “Lego” universes).

It all feels lazy, poorly thought out and redundant – which is kind of amazing when you consider the incredible work and attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the film. We’re not yet at a point where these towering Lego creations are visually uninteresting, praise the lord, and Animal Logic deserve plaudits for some of the spectacular builds in the movie – not the least of which is Gormadon’s giant robot, complete with shark-firing canon.

That doesn’t make for a good story, though, and Ninjago‘s story fails on some really basic levels, like cause and effect. Garmadon conquers Ninjago simply by climbing to the top of its tallest tower, which works fine when you’re five and play-fighting on a playground fort, but makes zero sense in this context. It feels like we’re expected to just go with it because it’s a kids’ movie, which absolutely flies in the face of why the previous Lego films worked at all.

Being charitable, kids who are into the Ninjago franchise will in all likelihood get a kick out of this one – there are references to mythology elements outside of the frame of the film that might give a little rill of continuity joy to the faithful (or they may be meaningless – it’s hard to say), but the simple truth is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not the cross-demographic joy that its predecessors are. In fact, it feels like the lazy offering we expected back in those cynical days when they first announced a Lego movie, and that’s pretty damning.