Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

B +

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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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Coco and Mexican Culture

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Slate has a great guide to the cultural references in “Coco” that people who are not of Mexican heritage might miss. (Note that co-director Lee Unkrich has responded to one of the points in the Slate article, saying that the use of both Dia dos Muertos and Dia de los Muertos was intentional to reflect the support for both they found in their research.

And this piece by Manuel Betancort about watching “Coco” with a Spanish language soundtrack made me sorry I don’t speak Spanish. He says that “Coco” is “Pixar’s most culturally specific movie in their lauded pantheon.”

Here at last was the kind of dubbing that didn’t feel like it was mangling, or weirdly bending the original into something it was not. It just had its characters talking (and singing) in the very language they were meant to speak. There’s a difference, for example, in hearing Miguel’s family talk about ofrendas (a word that always feels like it’s being italicized by its voice performers when speaking English, eager as they surely are to make it clear it’s a Spanish expression many may not be familiar with), and quite another to see that word just roll along in dialogue that doesn’t needlessly highlight it.

That’s perhaps even truer when it comes to Hector, the bumbling skeleton that Miguel befriends while in the Land of the Dead, and to Ernesto de la Cruz, the famed musical legend the musically inclined young boy admires and hopes to find while in that fantastical world. The former may be voiced by García Bernal in both versions (he’s one of a handful of actors who made good use of his bilingualism to score a double gig) but the latter, played by Benjamin Bratt, was dubbed by Marco Antonio Solís. And not to diminish Bratt’s singing abilities, but it truly is something else to hear the Pedro Infante-like character be portrayed by one of Mexico’s most recognizable voices.

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Coco’s Director and Story Supervisor: Interviews

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Copyright Disney-Pixar 2017
I had a wonderful time interviewing two of the people behind Pixar’s wonderful new movie, Coco.

For rogerebert.com, I interviewed co-director Adrian Molina.

So much of this film is about family and the importance of family and being connected to your family. A good part of my upbringing as a Mexican-American was in a multi-generational family and there are challenges when you have a household full of kids and adults and elderly people, and sometimes those challenges are age-related disabilities like dementia or limited mobility. Being upfront about those things really brings into focus the value of that family connection that even when it’s hard, the thing that you hold on to are those family relationships and the fact that you are there for each other. I love that Miguel lives in this multi-generational family and he’s got a great-great grandmother. He describes it “sometimes Mama Coco forgets things but that’s okay I still tell her everything” because it’s important to feature the hard parts of being a family. That is what makes it all worthwhile; those show us what it means to be there for each other through thick and thin.

And on Where to Watch, I interviewed Jason Katz, the story supervisor.

Like you, a lot of the people at Pixar have been there for a long time, and I feel like we’ve moved through their lives with them, from the sibling rivalry to growing up, having your children grow up, retirement, and now death.

You’re absolutely right. The Toy Story films are a perfect example. The first one is about jealousy and the fear of not being the favorite, and then the third one is about saying goodbye to your kids as they go off to college. That’s exactly what was happening in the lives of our creative leadership. It’s so funny – there’s all the work we’re putting into trying to craft these stories, but if you step back there’s a fascinating college dissertation to be written about the lives of our directors and our creative leaders and how that is reflected in our films.

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The Case of the Missing Movie Reviews: LA Times and Rotten Tomatoes

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What happened to the missing movie reviews? The LA Times did not have a review for one of the biggest movies of the year, “Thor: Ragnarock.” And in the same week, moviegoers saw something unusual on Rotten Tomatoes when they searched for a review of “Bad Moms Christmas.” For a day after tickets were available and the movie was being shown, no reviews were on the site. What gives?

There are two very different answers. The LA Times was barred from covering “Thor: Ragnarock” because Disney, which produced the film and owns Marvel, did not like a story the paper did on its Anaheim theme park. This is an awful precedent and likely to produce more bad publicity for Disney than if they just left it alone.

As for Rotten Tomatoes, early speculation that there was some plot afoot to avoid bad reviews turned out to be wrong. The only entity attempting to maintain some leverage was Rotten Tomatoes itself, and its premiere of a new movie review web series. According to a Forbes investigation by Scott Mendelson:

Rotten Tomatoes debuted a new Facebook movie review show on Thursday night. And as part of that show, which features Jacqueline Coley and Segun Oduolowu sparring over new movies and TV shows for around seven minutes, Rotten Tomatoes will select one new movie or TV show and reveal that film or show’s Tomatometer score on the webcast itself. In this case, since the embargo for A Bad Moms Christmas was essentially 15 hours before the broadcast, they chose that newbie as the exclusive “unveiling” title. Maybe next week it’ll be Paramount/Viacom Inc.’s Daddy’s Home 2, which I imagine will also have an embargo pretty close to the Nov. 10 release date. Or maybe they will pick something with a long-lead embargo that doesn’t open for a bit. We can expect much hand-wringing if they select the obvious pick for Nov. 17 as the “keep away” title.

I spoke with my Rotten Tomatoes contacts, who assured me that this is not any kind of under-the-table deal with studios and that Rotten Tomatoes will not be holding back reviews and scores until a film’s or TV show’s opening day as a matter of course.

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Women Movie Critics React to the Study About Kids and Horror Movies

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Thanks to Betsy Bozdech and Jennifer Merin for inviting me to join other members of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists in responding to the Cable.TV report on children’s exposure to horror films.

Here’s a slightly expanded version of what I sent them:

When I was researching The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies, I spoke to a number of people in their late teens or early 20’s because they were young enough to remember how they felt about the movies they saw as children and young teenagers but old enough to have some distance. I was very surprised to find that every single one of them immediately volunteered some scary movie that they still considered traumatizing, though the ones whose parents had allowed them to see the film, even mistakenly (“She had seen it on an airplane and didn’t realize that the worst parts were cut out”) were more upset than those who knew they were watching something their parents did not want them to see. I am always sorry when kids are upset by what they see, especially when they are so upset that they tear up or their voices shake when they talk about it years later. But I also recognize that no matter how careful parents are or how sheltered children are, whatever movie they see at exactly the moment when they are first able to understand the implications of scariness in a deeper way will always be considered especially upsetting. A concerned mother once told me that her two-year-old’s(!) favorite movie was “The Sound of Music,” and she wanted to see it every day but “I don’t want her to be scared by the Nazis.” I told her that a two-year-old has no ability to understand what Nazis are or even that the movie is more than a series of scenes of people singing, and cautioned her that in a few years, the child would suddenly see the movie in a different way as she reached a more mature developmental stage, and then she might find it scary.

I also want to note that every individual, including every child, has a very particular relationship to scary material. My own children were a boy and a girl, one who was never scared by anything he saw and really enjoyed scary movies and and one who, like me, still puts her hands over her eyes even in mildly scary movies. When my son was about 11 he told me he wanted to see more scary movies. I told him, “Lucky for you, you have a mother who is an expert on movies, so we’ll explore all the different kinds of scary — jump out at you, suspense, gore, etc. And so we did, and talked about what made something scary and how the filmmakers understood how audiences react and played into or didn’t play into our vulnerabilities and expectations. In my family, there was a boy whose parents were divorced, and it became his bonding time with his dad to go to horror movies together on weekends, ones I would have told them were completely inappropriate if they had asked me, which they did not. He loved them and is now a happy and healthy adult. So what I take away from all this is that parents need to know their children and listen to them about what kind of scares they are ready for and able to enjoy, but generally I recommend erring on the side of being protective.

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