Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fictional depiction of suicide and violence, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright A24 2017Let’s face it. Failure is more fascinating than success. There are innumerable movies based on true stories about real people who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination, vision, and talent to accomplish extraordinary achievements in sports, the arts, and shaping public policy. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Big Short” help us to understand huge, complicated tragic failures through the prism of small victories. But there are also movies like “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with Meryl Streep as the legendarily awful singer and “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp as the legendarily awful movie director, that explore with some affection the stories of terrible failures, and they do it with vastly more skill than the people they depict could have imagined.

In fact, that is part of what led to the failures in the first place — Florence Foster Jenkins and Ed Wood were exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less competent people are, the more likely they are to be unable to evaluate their own competence. It isn’t the terrible end product that enthralls us as much as the buoyant optimism and imperishable self-regard that keeps these people going while the rest of us are consumed with doubt and insecurity.

The Room,” from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.” It is in that rare category of films that transcend “so bad it’s good” and “suitable for Mystery Science Theater commentary” into genuine hit, with well-attended midnight showings filled with fans who come to see it again and again. Like the midnight “Rocky Horror Show” screenings, fans come in costume and with props. An arty picture of a spoon in a frame that appears in many shots provokes a flurry of plastic spoons thrown at the screen. The crowd yells “focus” whenever someone should have reminded the cinematographer that the camera needed to produce a sharper image. And some people get happily tipsy taking a drink whenever any of the movie’s characters say “Hi.”

The film is based on a book co-written by Greg Sestero, who co-starred in “The Room.” For multi-degreed master of literary analysis James Franco, who directed and stars in the film, “Disaster Artist” is not an oxymoron. In his mind, Tommy Wiseau is an artist because he has a singular vision so urgent that he will realize it, no matter the cost, in the most literal terms. Wiseau is said to have spent six million dollars in making “The Room,” much of it as poorly decided as every other choice that went into making the film.

“The Room” tells the story (I use the term loosely, as the script is a mishmash of many unexplained developments and characters, with a plot even more out of focus than the camera) of Johnny (played by Wiseau, and Franco as Wiseau in this version), a successful banker who has a fiancee named Lisa (portrayed by Ari Graynor), a best friend named Mark (played by Dave Franco as Greg Sestero), and a teenage protegee of some kind named Danny (played by Josh Hutcherson). Lisa is bored with Johnny and begins an affair with Mark, though her mother pushes her to stay with Johnny because he is rich and treats her well. The film has extended soft-core-style sex scenes, a weird, inexplicable confrontation between Danny and a drug dealer, and another odd scene with guys in tuxedos tossing a football.

“The Disaster Artist” begins with Greg and Tommy meeting in acting class in Northern California, becoming friends in part because of their shared love for James Dean (coincidentally once played by Franco himself in a breakthrough performance) and dreams of being stars. They move to LA together, with Greg staying in Tommy’s apartment. Tommy is quite mysterious about his background (he has a strange eastern European accent), his age, and his source of income. He is supportive of Greg but also possessive. The decision to cast his own brother as Greg is Franco’s exploration of a mirrored duality in their relationship and there is more than a hint of some boundary issues that may reflect homoerotic feelings.

Frustrated by his lack of success in Hollywood and jealous that Greg is getting some work, Tommy decides to write and produce his own movie. And so we see how many bad decisions go into creating the “Citizen Kane” of terrible cinema. But we also see a very rare example of a film, usually the ultimate artistic reflection of teamwork, that is a genuinely singular vision. As muddled and incoherent as it is, it is exactly the movie he had in his head and exactly the movie he wanted to make. Franco clearly respects that, as Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” (with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Orson Welles as his stand-in showing one director saluting another). The audiences in the midnight shows are there to jeer and feel superior. Franco, in his performance and direction, is sympathetic, giving Wiseau and his story the film he was not able to give himself.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits for some uncanny side-by-side re-creations of scenes from “The Room” with the cast of this film.

Parents should know that this film includes nudity, sexual references and situations, depiction of suicide and violence, alcohol, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What does it mean that something is “so bad it’s good?” What does this movie tell us about the decisions that go into making a work of art?

If you like this, try: “The Room,” of course, and the book by Sestero, and the bonkers “Beaver Trilogy” documentary

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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 7:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon peril and violence, mayhem but no one seriously injured or killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017
It’s colorful and entertaining, but it does not come close to its hilariously meta predecessors, “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman.” It does not draw from as rich a cultural vein as the first two and we have become accustomed to the once-astonishingly meticulous and mischievous use of the LEGO bricks and people. Some children may be upset about the theme of parental abandonment and a father who is a bad guy, even though it is portrayed with gentle humor. But it is often quite cute and it has a couple of very funny ideas.

The movie begins with live action, when a boy (Kaan Guldur) who carries a LEGO figure in his pocket ducks into a curios and antiques store to avoid some bullies and meets Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan) and the store cat. Liu takes the battered little figure and turns him into a ninja as he begins to tell the boy a story.

At the center of the now-animated story is Lloyd (Dave Franco), on his 16th birthday. He lives with his mother, Koko (Olivia Munn) and faces bullies at school (“Have you been to high school?” he asks his mother. “It’s judgey.”) And he faces widespread derision pretty much everywhere because his father, who abandoned him as a baby, happens to be the power-mad villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux). A butt-dialed call from Garmadon, who has no interest in Lloyd and remembers him only dimly as having no hair or teeth (“That was when I was a baby!”) leaves Lloyd feeling wounded. Garmadon may be an evil genius with four arms who throws minions who displease him away via volcano, but he is still Lloyd’s dad, and Lloyd just wishes they could hang out and do guy stuff like tossing a ball.

It turns out that while the cool kids at school think they are unpopular nerds and dorks (like Clark Kent), Lloyd and his friends are secretly (like Power Rangers) super ninjas, with extremely cool “mecs” (transportation and fighting machines shaped like dragons, spiders, and robots). Their teacher, Master Wu (Chan) explains that they also have and elemental (like “Avatar”) powers over earth, water, ice, and lightning. Lloyd just has “green” power, whatever that is.

Meanwhile, after the ninjas thwart his invasion, Garmadon orders his generals to meet him by the fireplace (“The room with the lava or where people get fired?” Turns out to be both). They are quickly dispatched, and he gets back to work. But Garmadon’s next invasion is halted by an unexpected force: the (very funny and unexpected) “ultimate weapon.” Now the ninjas will have to beat or join forces with Garmadon to get the “ultimate ultimate weapon” and save the city.

As with the other films, there are knowing meta-isms, as when Master Wu explains that he won’t die unless it is to teach the ninjas a lesson. Franco and Theroux, along with Kumail Nanjiani as one of the other ninjas and Olivia Munn as Koko, are excellent voice talent. And there are some clever callbacks on Lloyd’s wish that his father would teach him to catch and throw. But it is too long and lacks the imagination and verve of the first two. I hope that’s not too judgey.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of cartoon-style peril and action (no one injured or killed but a lot of mayhem and destruction), issues of parental abandonment and villainy, and some bullying.

Family discussion: When have you shown courage, hard work, and patience? When did you see something in a new way? Why did Lloyd forgive his father?

If you like this, try: “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Movies -- format

Now You See Me 2

Posted on June 9, 2016 at 5:40 pm

now-you-see-me-2The first “Now You See Me” was a deliciously entertaining heist film with “the Four Horsemen,” a team of magicians, engaged in a diabolically clever combination of misdirection and triple-cons for the purpose of revenge, Robin Hood reparations, and showmanship. We know what that means for part 2 — the Empire strikes back, and it is a popcorn pleasure. The Horsemen stole from billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and framed the magician turned debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) so he ended up in prison.

At the end of the last film, the surprise twist revealed FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) as the brains behind the operation. As this one opens, the FBI, with Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan) in charge, does not know and thinks Rhodes is still looking for three of the Horsemen. They believe Jack Wilder, played by Dave Franco, was killed. They’re wrong about both. Rhodes is working with the Horsemen, including Wilder. But there is a new member of the group: Lula (Lizzy Caplan, replacing Isla Fisher). And they immediately run into a snag involving someone who knows a bit about magic in the movies: Daniel Radcliffe as Walter Mabry, a mysterious, mega-wealthy guy who wants the Horsemen to steal something for him. It’s the usual MacGuffin — some sort of computer thing that would give him access to everything/control of everything blah blah, and it’s locked away in a place with the kind of crazy security reserved for heist movies. All the world’s biggest, richest baddies are after it, and so the Horsemen have to find a way to get in there before one of them gets it.

The first movie had sensational performance showpieces. This one is more “Mission: Impossible” (the television series, not the Tom Cruise movies) until the final scene. But it keeps the sly twists coming, using all the magicians’ favorite ruses, from misdirection to an almost-balletic slight of hand. Just like “The Avengers,” it is a lot of fun to see each of the Horsemen use their skills — mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), lock wizard Wilder, card master Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). We learned in the first film that McKinney’s brother stole all his money and disappeared; it turns out he was an identical twin brother, and he shows up, played by Harrelson with hair that looks like that awful perm Mike Brady had in the last season of “The Brady Bunch.”

It has all the twists and reveals and surprises we were hoping for, including one saucy switch that is not about magic, just social conventions that have not caught up to reality, some very old school means of communication, and a touch of movie magic in giving us a glimpse of one character’s past with some CGI that looks a little more realistic than the “work” that has ruined so many Hollywood faces. Director Jon M. Chu (the “Step Up” movies) has a superb sense of space and movement, giving the story exuberance and flair. It’s a fitting encore and I hope we will see them all again in part 3.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, and some action-style peril and violence.

Family discussion: Would you want to be selected by The Eye? Which magic trick would you like to be able to master?

If you like this, try: the original film and “The Sting”

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Crime Series/Sequel

Unfinished Business

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015

“Unfinished Business” is a story about three renegade renegades from bureaucracy going up against The Man and the importance of the individual in an era of soul-grinding corporatism. But the movie itself is clearly the product of institutional over-management, as though it was put together by a committee and then circulated for sign-off through a dozen different divisions. The result is a weird and sadly sour mash-up of wild, raunchy comedy, underdog triumph, and treacly family story about how much daddies love their children. Plus random switches of location, tired jokes about glory holes in gay bars, and stunningly off-kilter “humor” about developmental challenges. And much assumed hilarity about someone’s funny name, which is not even that funny. Vince Vaughn looks tired throughout and not just because his character is exhausted. The original title, “Business Trip,” would have better described the storyline. The current title better describes the film.

Vaughn plays Daniel, who in a “Jerry Maguire” moment begins the film by quitting his job as a salesman for some faceless conglomerate that sells something. His boss, Chuck (Sienna Miller, very funny and underused) has told him he has to take a pay cut. So he walks out, and two men come along. One is old and bitter (Tom Wilkinson as Timothy). One is young and naive (Dave Franco as Mike). But they have grit and dreams and determination. A year later, they have just one last chance to keep their enterprise going. The deal has been approved. They just need to fly to Portland, Maine for the handshake. Yes, a handshake is all it takes to shake that money tree. We won’t waste time on the sloppiness in the portrayal of “business” in this film, except to note that it is consistent with the lack of energy throughout.

At first it seems there will be some connection between the bullying issues faced by Daniel’s children and his relationship with Chuck. Instead, we get to hear Timothy whine about his bad marriage and how much he wants to have sex, wheelbarrow style. Or another joke about Mike Pancake’s last name or his inability to master basic vocabulary (while somehow doing an excellent job putting complicated pricing figures together).

But before they can get to the handshake, they have to get through Chuck, who is there chatting up the client with jokes that are just smutty enough to make her look like a “cool girl,” and undercutting their prices to drive them out of business. This means they end up going to Germany for yet another meeting, so that lots of things can go wrong in ways that are supposed to be funny along the way. The car flips over. A crucial agreement cannot happen unless they track down a female colleague in a co-ed spa, who of course insists that Daniel remove his clothes to show his, uh, commitment or something. The guys end up at a gay bar, a youth hostel, an anti-G8 demonstration, and a very revealing art installation, as Daniel tries to re-do his numbers to undercut Chuck and keep up with some bullying problems his children are dealing with at home. At one point, he ends up walking (and then running) around in teal eyeshadow, and we perk up for a moment, thinking something that isn’t banal and formulaic is going to happen, but no such luck.  The storyline, like the comedy, is unfinished, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes constant very strong language, extended male and female nudity, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, drug use, bullying, and comic peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why did Daniel have trouble with the homework assignment? Should he have told his wife the truth? How did he help his children?

If you like this, try: “The Hangover” and “The Big Kahuna”

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Now You See Me

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action, and sexual content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style violence, characters in peril, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2013
Date Released to DVD: September 2, 2013 ASIN: B00DWZHTRW

now-you-see-me-castThe most purely entertaining movie of the year so far is “Now You See Me,” and like all great magic tricks, it makes us delighted to be fooled.   We are warned from the very beginning that the closer we look, the less we will see, but even on the alert for the magician’s tools of misdirection and mirrors, it keeps us happily guessing until the very last second.  We might suspect the why, but the who and the how are another story.  One of the magicians tells us that stage magic is deception designed to entertain, delight, and inspire, and that’s just what this movie does.

Four magicians with four very different styles, all very independent, rather arrogant, and very competitive but none at the top of their field are brought together in a most mysterious manner, and the next thing we know, they are headlining in a huge arena sponsored by a multi-millionaire named Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The master of close-up magic and card tricks is J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is the specialist at hypnosis (and post-hypnotic suggestion). Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is an escape artist. And Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a pickpocket and locksmith. The very fine line between trickery and outright con is crossed now and then as we meet our heroes, or possibly, anti-heroes.

In their big, bravura, very polished show, they announce they are going to rob a bank where someone in the audience has an account. The man they select at random(?) is French. Is that a setback? Au contraire! The next thing we see or think we see is the Frenchman magically transported to Paris, inside the bank’s safe — just as it is about to open for business because Paris is seven hours ahead. And then, the money appears, and the magicians generously distribute it to the audience.

A French agent from Interpol (Mélanie Laurant of “Beginners” as Alma Dray — names are not this movie’s strong point) and a cranky agent from the FBI (is there any other kind?) named Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) team up to investigate.  A professional debunker of magicians (a la The Amazing Randi) played by Morgan Freeman provides some guidance — or is that just more misdirection?

It would be wrong to say any more.  Just go see it to enjoy the tricks and the great performances and directions that are real movie magic.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language (a crude insult, f-word), characters in peril, drinking, and sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What clues did you miss? Which kind of magic would you like to be able to do?

If you like this, try: “The Illusionist” and “Oceans 11”

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