(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) The question of whether good art can arise from bad art is sophomoric (of course it can; just as surely as good art can come from bad things) but it does seem to be central to the critical reaction to The Disaster Artist. It is, after all, a successful dramatization of the making of the terrible movie The Room. If you haven’t seen The Room, well, you really don’t have to: It’s an incoherent romantic drama that has become a modern ironic reference for fans of bad movies. The reasons why it’s bad are far more interesting than the film itself, and The Disaster Artist correctly focuses on that aspect of the story in showing how a young actor (Greg Sestero, who authored the book on which this film is based) is befriended by an enigmatic man (Tommy Wisseau) who somehow has the money to finance an entire film. Alas, when means exceed talent, strange things can happen and so it is that The Room is a singular vision from a man who doesn’t seem to be entirely human. The Disaster Artist hits its stride when it portrays the real-life story of how The Room was shot, with the crew practically rebelling against the director and yet trudging along despite the results. The Disaster Artist can practically stand alone as a filmmaker’s insider movie of what can happen during shooting. Fortunately, it’s as funny as the event themselves, as we see the Franco brothers (James and Dave) play off each other, with some assistance from Seth Rogen, Alison Brie and half a dozen cameos. The narrative doesn’t always correspond to the real-life story, but director James Franco’s recreation of The Room‘s ineptness is striking and, as the credits sequence shows, matches The Room‘s footage really well. It’s a fascinating story, ridiculous and yet endearing at once. After all: Tommy Wisseau got to make a movie seen by millions … which is more than almost all of us can claim. Now the terrible The Room has spawned the Oscar-nominated The Disaster Artist … a remarkable feat even by Hollywood standards.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Mark me down as pleasantly surprised by energetic teenage techno-thriller Nerve. It’s got an intriguing premise coupled with a rather good execution, and it doesn’t take itself all that seriously nor pretend that it’s anything other than what it is. Adapted from a novel (but wisely choosing to lighten up the original material), Nerve takes current anxieties about social media and puts them into a blender. What comes out is a mobile game in which participants are asked to perform increasingly dangerous dares for an audience of thousands. Smartphones are essential, and so are throngs of followers. Our heroine (Emma Roberts, rather good) falls into the rabbit-hole by accident, but it doesn’t take a long time for her to be stuck alongside a bad-boy teammate (Dave Franco, decent enough) as the stakes increase. (Elsewhere in casting, fans of Orange is the New Black will be amused to see two of the series’ distinctive actresses, Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley, back on-screen albeit not necessarily together.) While clearly aimed at a teenage audience, Nerve does benefit from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s sense for the zeitgeist and keeping things moving. New York City makes for a fun playground to the action, and the film doesn’t quite shy away from ruminating on the viewer’s complicity in outlandish internet stunts. It’s a teenage film that couldn’t exist as such if it had been made for adults, and that’s quite a distinction by itself. Otherwise, Nerve is a tight 96-minutes thriller, perfect to watch as long as expectations are kept low enough to be surprised.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually find Vince Vaughn annoying, which is not really a good portent when watching a film built around him. But this time around, Vaughn looks as if he’s slowly stretching out of his overgrown frat-boy persona as a family man heading out for a crucial business trip. I’m not suggesting that his humor is any more mature than his usual shtick – but in Unfinished Business, he shows signs that he’s at least trying to play his age. It helps that hi co-stars, Tom Wilkinson as a sex-obsessed pre-retiree and Dave Franco as a too-dumb-to-live youngster, take up a lot of his usual immaturity routine. The result isn’t necessarily a good movie: Unfinished Business is dumb even by Vaughn standards, with crude humor sabotaging whatever emotional core the film tries to build as foundation. But it’s unsatisfying for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with Vaughn himself, and that’s already an improvement over much of his filmography. As for Unfinished Business, what’s to mention? A good small role for Nick Frost. Far more nudity (of both genders) than you’d expect. A far too long time-jump at the end of the prologue. I suppose that the film’s biggest flaw is how it unsuccessfully tries to navigate a middle-road between family-friendly sentiment and outrageous raunchiness. Unfinished Business feels padded despite a short running time and while the basic laughs are there, there’s also a sense that it should be much better.