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Posted December 13, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Last Saturday, I saw The Breadwinner. Not nearly as good as Tomm Moore’s other work (to be fair, he was only a producer and not the director this time, but his fingerprints were all over the finished product), mostly because the desolate setting doesn’t provide much in the way of compelling visuals and there were too many disparate storylines to juggle efficiently. Still, it was a sweet little movie about faith, stories, and the strength it takes merely to survive in such a hostile time and place.

Anyway, to repeat, I saw that movie on Saturday. It’s Wednesday of the next week and I haven’t even started my review for it. Why is that? Well, to be blunt, I just don’t have the time or energy for it. The cliched and boring explanation is to blame my work life and the holiday season, and while those excuses would be true, it’s not like those have ever stopped me before.

No, the crucial difference this time is that I’m actually getting produced. In fact, I’m producing two plays at once. Yes. Seriously. I know.

My first attempt at writing a play was “From the Ruby Lounge”, a collection of twelve monologues each told by a different employee within the same fictional Portland strip club. Five years after I finished the first draft, I finally have a venue willing to stage it this coming February. Which means that for the past several months, I’ve been scrambling to find a director, put together a cast, hire a crew, schedule rehearsals, and that’s not even getting started on the script rewrites I still haven’t gotten to or the crowdfunding campaign next month.

My most recent script was “Spider Drive”, a rock alternative B-side jukebox musical mystery thriller. To clarify: This is a rock musical neo-noir set to some of the greatest modern rock alternative songs you’ve probably never heard of. I’ve been developing this in collaboration with Torchsong Entertainment for their big Spring production next March, and they’ve been doing most of the heavy lifting with regard to production. Even so, I want to do my fair share of the promotion and I want to be available if script rewrites become necessary.

I didn’t exactly plan on producing two scripts at once, that’s just kinda how things came together. And while I’m doing that, what do we have to look forward to in movies?

Well, we’ve got the annual January/February cinematic doldrums. There’s Star Wars VIII and Black Panther coming up, both the kind of critic-proof tentpole releases I’ve complained about reviewing so often in the past. There’s my annual Oscars liveblog, but I won’t know how excited I should be about that until the nominations are out. The year-end lists? Man, those are a ton of work to put together.

All told, I’ve been keeping this blog on a pretty consistent basis since April of 2010. A lot has happened in the time since, and this hasn’t been the first time I’ve felt so burned out that I needed to take a break. But with everything going on right now, there’s simply no other option.

I only have so much time and creative energy, and I feel the obligation to put it toward developing my own work instead of writing about someone else’s. I’m fighting so hard to get something on the stage and in front of audiences when it could fall apart at any point before the finish line, and I just don’t have it in me right now to care as much about something that’s made and done for good by the time I see it.

So I’m going to step away from the blog for a few months. When my shows have wrapped up and I need this creative outlet again, I’ll be glad to give it the time and attention it deserves.

I don’t want to make anything sound too final, since I do have every intention of coming back to the blog, but this seems like a good time to express my gratitude. It bears mentioning that I’m entirely a self-taught playwright — pretty much everything worth knowing about writing or storytelling, I learned from analyzing movies and expressing my thoughts in concise and descriptive ways. And none of that would mean anything if I didn’t have your feedback to show me what I’m doing right or how I could be doing better. Moreover, it feels tremendously validating as a writer to know there’s at least one other person out there who gives a crap about what I have to say.

Thank you for sticking with me so far, and I hope to see you again on the other side. If you’d like to keep up with my onstage projects, I’ll be happy to post about them on Facebook and Twitter. But just in case I don’t get to see you, have a wonderful holiday and a great time at the movies.

The Disaster Artist

Posted December 9, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

For those just tuning in, I’ve already said my piece about The Room. In fact, I sat in at one of the infamous regular screenings at Cinema 21 and wrote a twopart blog entry on the experience. At the time, I would gladly have agreed that it was truly the best worst movie ever made, but that was a few years before my seven-part marathon of “so bad it’s good” cult classics.

Having experienced all of that, I submit that while The Room is in the same campy and tin-eared class as Showgirls, it only has a mere fraction of the juvenile sleaze that makes the latter film so uncomfortable to sit through. So I’d rank The Room above that movie, but below the unpredictably bugfuck hilarity of Troll 2. It’s certainly not the best worst movie of all time (that would be the earnest, well-intentioned, and just plain adorable Plan 9 From Outer Space), but it’s also not the absolute worst movie of all time (the deeply cynical, utterly pointless, and just plain unwatchable middle finger to cinema that was “Manos” The Hands of Fate).

If you haven’t seen The Room, I very strongly recommend watching it with friends who know all the “audience participation” cues and inside jokes. In fact, if you know any such people, you should probably see The Disaster Artist with them while you’re at it.

Tonight’s movie is based on the memoirs of Greg Sestero (“SESTOSTERONE!!!“), the second male lead of The Room. Specifically, the movie follows Sestero’s friendship with Tommy Wiseau and how the latter came to be the writer/producer/director/star of The Room. And if you know anything at all about Tommy Wiseau or his movie, you can begin to imagine how weird this is.

Right off the bat, director James Franco made the inspired choice of respectively casting himself and brother Dave Franco as Wiseau and Sestero. Obviously, the chemistry between these two characters has to be pitch-perfect and of course these two brothers have it down from the word go. Moreover, it also helps that the two characters complement each other quite well, in that Sestero is incredibly handsome but doesn’t have the confidence to tap into his full potential, while Wiseau is this strange little troll who talks funny and acts weird and seems pathologically incapable of giving a fuck.

The plan at first seems to be that Wiseau gives Sestero the needed confidence to boost his acting talent and spark his career, so Sestero can reach back and help Wiseau upon making it big. But it doesn’t quite work that way. See, while Sestero may be a pretty face, those are a dime a dozen in L.A. The sad simple truth is that he’d have a hard enough time making it big in Hollywood without his bizarre and delusional friend tagging along.

Sestero can’t catch a break because he’s too much like everyone else. And Wiseau can’t make it big because he’s mentally and physically incapable of playing the game. So they do the only thing they can and change the rules. Hell, even when their movie turns out to be a disaster that has everyone rolling in the aisles with unintentional laughter, they change the rules again and pretend that was their goal the whole time. And remember, that’s not a spoiler, that’s the point.

While Dave Franco is perfectly serviceable as our leading man, it’s James Franco who really drives the movie. And how could he not, when he’s playing someone as eerily magnetic as Tommy Wiseau? Franco (the director and star) perfectly captures the singular demented genius of the man, with an infectious disregard for what anyone else thinks. This is exactly the kind of guy who’s so unpredictable and so unique that you want to keep watching him just to see what he’ll do next. His demands are so outlandish that it’s insanely easy to give him enough rope to hang himself with. Until things go wrong, of course.

First of all, because Wiseau is an innate narcissist, he blames everything on everyone except himself. He can’t properly look after his friends or coworkers because any of their complaints or basic needs — like water or AC in the summer SoCal heat, for example — are deemed “unprofessional behavior”.

What’s more, Wiseau is quite famously incapable of giving a straight credible answer to any question. He won’t say where he’s from. (New Orleans with that accent? Yeah, right.) He won’t say how old he is. (Greg Sestero’s age? No way.) He won’t explain where he got the money to simultaneously keep apartments in L.A. and San Francisco while inexplicably pouring an estimated $6 million into The Room. (Seriously, think about that.) For all we know, “Tommy Wiseau” isn’t even his real name. If Tommy Wiseau the director won’t give such basic and necessary information to those closest to him, how can he say with a straight face that he’s being honest and authentic with anyone? When Tommy says that he’s baring his soul for the camera with this picture, who could believe him? And how can he insist on getting any honest portrayals from his actors when he’s being a hypocrite about the whole thing?

Another important thing about Wiseau is that precisely because he’s so unique, and because he’s such a narcissist, he’s terribly lonely. So he takes friendship seriously, and he’s going to lash out at everyone in arm’s reach when he feels “betrayed”. You can imagine how he takes it when Sestero actually finds a glimmer of hope for his career and starts developing a decent love life (his girlfriend is played by Alison Brie, who really is married to Dave Franco) while Tommy is still behind schedule and over-budget on this weird little movie that may never get finished, let alone in front of an audience.

I want to stress that this picture is genuinely funny. The movie is loaded with fantastic re-enactments of The Room, and the imitations are just as hilarious to watch. What’s more, both Francos get some wonderfully funny lines, and the climax — in which we see people watching the movie for the first time — is comedy gold. But of course so much of the tension and comedy comes from watching The Room actually get made, as we see Wiseau’s mania spiral farther and farther out of control as patience gradually frays. In the movie’s production and in the movie’s premiere, there’s definitely a sense of humor being used as a coping mechanism. In both situations, everyone is presented with something so uncomfortably and impossibly awful that the only way to deal with it is to laugh.

Naturally, the fact that it works so well is a great testament to James Franco as a director. But credit is also due to a lot of the supporting cast. In particular, Seth Rogen (playing Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor) is the true anchor of the production scenes, playing the straight man who can’t believe the shit that Wiseau keeps pulling. Jacki Weaver gets a couple of nice scenes as Carolyn Minnott, who played Claudette in The Room. Zac Efron is completely unrecognizable in his scene opposite Josh Hutcherson, as they respectively play “Chris R.” and Denny in The Room. And as for Ari Graynor… shit, when she first came onscreen, I thought she actually was Juliette Danielle in a cameo appearance.

Though noteworthy cameo roles were in fact given to Megan Mullally and Bryan Cranston. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Judd Apatow, all of whom make brief but highly memorable appearances. Looking deeper at the IMDb page, it looks like the real Tommy Wiseau himself poked his head in somewhere, and there are quite a few other interesting cameo players besides.

So, nitpicks? Well, there was some shaky-cam early on that looked terribly out of place, but the handheld camerawork got to be more natural as the film went on. Additionally, while the comedy is wonderful and the Franco Brothers’ chemistry is solid, it’s hard to disguise the fact that the plot is pretty rote. When you get right down to it, this is just another buddy comedy in which two people become bestest buddies, slowly distrust each other until they break up, and then get back together in time for the end. We’ve seen it a million times and this script follows the established story beats like clockwork. Likewise, the basic themes of “Follow your dreams” and “Be yourself” are stuff we’ve seen a million times before. Hell, strictly in terms of plot and theme, there’s really not much here that wasn’t done and done better in La La Land just last year. What makes all the difference, of course, is the subject matter.

The Disaster Artist is tricky in that so much of this movie will only work for those who already know and love The Room. Established fans who already know the inside jokes and history of the subject will find a lot here to enjoy and laugh at. Those who know about the cast and crew will be thrilled to marvel at the pitch-perfect impersonations and scene recreations, especially James Franco’s uncanny impression of Tommy Wiseau. But for those without any interest in The Room, all you’ll get is a cookie-cutter plot and an oddball performance from James Franco.

If you’ve seen The Room, you should absolutely give this a watch. Otherwise, while this certainly isn’t a bad movie, you’d be better off watching the real deal first.


Posted December 3, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a kid born with a freak recessive gene mutation and subsequently put through a couple dozen corrective surgeries before he’s even in the fifth grade. The movie covers his entire fifth-grade year, his very first in a school with other kids following a childhood in home school. Jacob Tremblay plays our lead character (under thick prosthetics and makeup), and Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts play his parents, while Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs respectively play his new principal and homeroom teacher.

Given this premise, this cast, and this release date, the film was clearly made and marketed as an awards contender. And this easily could’ve been just another bit of disposable Oscar-bait. But it isn’t. It’s actually something a lot more rare and beautiful.

To be clear, the proceedings do get sappy and contrived at times, often laughably so. Right off the bat, for example, we have to wonder how this white middle-class family can afford so many corrective surgeries for their son and live in a New York brownstone AND send their two kids to private school. All on the income of a single working parent, I might add, while the mother has spent the past decade at home teaching her kid. And that’s just for starters — as the movie keeps going, we see a lot of predictable and cliched moments in between the cloying voice-overs and obnoxious Star Wars sight gags.

And what is all of this for? Well, it’s obviously a movie about accepting others for who they are and what they can do, rather than how they look. It’s a movie about how extremely difficult and necessary it can be to make friends and keep them. And to be clear, these messages are very clearly and explicitly designed for the context of grade school and high school. Yes, I suppose you might be able to read this as a metaphor for sexual/racial inclusion, if you wanted to dislocate a few limbs and fingers making that much of a stretch.

That’s when it finally hit me that I was looking at this movie all wrong. As a deep and profound awards-bait movie made for adults, it didn’t make any sense. But as a moral message crafted for kids and young teens, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s really kind of genius.

For every time when this movie gets all saccharine and cliched, there’s another time when this movie acts against the grain in some bold and impressive ways. We see these kids play with their food, hold burping contests, and help each other cheat on tests. We see them shout at each other, refuse to speak to each other, and even physically come to blows with each other. It really is quite astounding how the characters get to be more developed and authentic as the plot unfolds. Thus the movie can get away with the more cliched moments because it’s balanced out with so many moments of genuine emotional hardship. What’s even more impressive is that the filmmakers somehow toned down the more extreme moments to be kid-friendly without sacrificing an iota of the emotional (or visceral) punch.

Auggie is of course the prime source of the movie’s pathos, since he has to learn how to coexist with children too young to learn (as he tragically already has) that nobody goes through life without picking up scars. But we also see the other kids talk behind his back and make rude remarks to his face, unaware of what an impact their words and actions have. Easily the single greatest — and most important! — thing that this movie does is to clearly illustrate how even the smallest word or action can leave a significant impact. Time and time again, we see how the characters are uplifted by a single gesture, or utterly destroyed by hearing someone else say the wrong word. This is a huge part of how bullying is portrayed in such an authentic and hard-hitting way that will absolutely resonate with kids.

(Side note: One of the most devastating scenes for Auggie happens during Halloween. The character is dressed in a full-body costume with a mask that covers his entire face, and the movie still portrays the character’s heartfelt pain in visceral detail without a word spoken. I don’t know how the filmmakers pulled that off, but kudos.)

And of course that’s just what we see with Auggie and his peers. We also get glimpses of Diggs’ character trying to create a nurturing environment for his students without stepping on any toes. Patinkin’s character tries to tamp down on bullying in school while dealing with willfully ignorant parents who insist their kids could do no wrong. Auggie’s parents are trying to raise two kids when one of them demands so much more attention than the other. Which brings me to my personal favorite case in point, Auggie’s older sister (Olivia “Via” Pullman, played by Izabela Vidovic).

Via has a lot of sibling jealousy going on, given how pretty much everything has been put on hold to care for little brother since the day he was born. That said, while Via may resent how Auggie is always the center of attention, she knows and understands how much he hates to be in that position. They love each other and support each other, and while Via may occasionally lash out because nobody will ever make time for her, she’s had a lifetime of practice at keeping that bottled up. For better or worse.

Moreover, Via had two coping mechanisms for getting the attention she needed. One of them was her grandmother, who recently passed away. The other one was Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), her best friend since kindergarten, who’s mysteriously stopped talking to Via since the day school started. We do eventually learn what’s going on with Miranda, but there’s no way I’m getting into that here. Suffice to say that Via and Auggie both feel like social outcasts, deeply hurt by those they thought were their best friends. Even if Auggie’s case is far more severe, that doesn’t make Via’s problems any less real or painful. It’s a sweet little bonding moment when the two of them realize that all they have is each other.

Tremblay further proves that he’s a bona fide powerhouse in spite of his youth, and Vidovic turns in a starmaking performance. In point of fact, all of the child actors and young adults in the cast are uncommonly, exceptionally good. Credit is also due to Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts, both of whom turn in their best work in years. Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin each get very little time, I’m sorry to say, but they have such powerful screen presence that they’re able to leave a strong and instant impression all the same.

Overall, Wonder threads the needle to hit a rare and difficult balance: While this was definitely made for children, it’s heavy and intelligent enough to keep the adults involved. It’s a movie that directly addresses kids and young teens without talking down to them, taking it for granted that kids are not immune to the slings and arrows of fate and are perhaps more capable of enduring them than we realize. In point of fact, one of the film’s cornerstone messages (“precepts”, if you will) is the message that even at such a young age, kids may be suffering through more than meets the eye and could be in need of a helping hand.

While “PG” has come to mean “Practically G”, this is absolutely a true PG movie. Its authentic and potent messages of friendship and communication absolutely demand to be seen by kids and discussed with their parents afterward. If you’re under the age of 16 or you know anyone who’s under the age of 16, I strongly recommend that you give the film a good hard look.


Posted December 3, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s remarkable how Hollywood has been more open to embracing diversity in recent years. While we certainly still have a long ways to go, audiences have made it perfectly clear that we want and need more people of color in strong leading roles, and studio execs certainly seem open to attracting a wider audience if nothing else.

So here’s Coco, the latest movie from Pixar, featuring a distinct emphasis on Dia de Muertos. It’s not just a motif as in The Book of Life, and it’s not just a brief set piece as in Spectre — no, this whole movie revolves around the Day of the Dead. The filmmakers use the rules, mythology and iconography of the Mexican holiday, utilizing all of them as crucial plot devices. Some actual figures of Mexican history even make cameo appearances.

All of this could easily have been used as a lazy storytelling shortcut at best, or cultural misappropriation at worst. But the movie avoids that trap by taking its setting very seriously. All the cultural trappings and traditions are treated with profound reverence, such that this story could never have been told in any other time or place, and the attention to detail is astounding. Every last pixel onscreen is gleaming with polish, and the animation — particularly during the musical segments — is sublime. It’s seriously hard to accuse the filmmakers of not giving a shit when they’ve put this much work into their movie. And it’s also a movie with an all-Latino cast, which certainly helps.

It’s really the presentation that saves this movie, because there’s surprisingly little going on under the surface. But we’ll get back to that.

The story opens with a prologue, in which we hear about a musician who left his wife and daughter to seek fame and fortune. The wife and daughter went on to start their own business making shoes, handing it down through the generations. Out of spite, they also erased the musician’s name and face from all family history and have forbidden any music of any kind to be played or heard.

Yet along comes Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), the great-great-grandson of that disgraced musician. Miguel himself is a prodigal and passionate guitarist, having learned from obsessively watching the movies of the legendary actor/singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), and playing along on a guitar he built from scrap. Long story short, Miguel comes across evidence that his idol may actually be his great-great-grandfather. Following his example, Miguel sets out to escape his family and start on his path toward being a world-class musician.

Instead, through circumstances far too messy and convoluted to recap here, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead. He needs to return to the living by sundown, and he can only do that with the help of his family. (I don’t have time here to go into how that works, but I promise it makes sense.) The good news is that his deceased family members (led by Imelda Rivera, the abandoned great-great-grandmother herself, played by Alanna Ubach) is willing to help out. The bad news is that they’ll only send him back to the living on condition that he never plays music again.

First of all, it’s really quite clever how the “Day of the Dead” conceit was used to make Miguel’s conflict with his family history into a literal conflict between him and the ghosts of his family. Second and more importantly, it’s really quite impressive how the good guy/bad guy line isn’t so clear-cut when it comes to Miguel and his family. Yes, on some level, Miguel’s relatives are being selfish and stupid for obsessively holding onto this grudge through so many generations. And in their efforts to silence any and all music within earshot, they go to lengths that are frankly absurd.

That said, one imagines how difficult it must have been for a single mother to learn a trade and maintain a business after starting from literally nothing. It makes sense that this family would want to preserve their zapateria by any means necessary, since it’s pretty much all they have. Especially since these characters explicitly carry the weight of their forefathers and an obligation to carry on what they helped create. Speaking of which, there’s definitely the pressure to make sure that nobody in the family takes after the prodigal forefather, setting out with no regard for the family left behind.

Of course, it could be argued that the disgraced great-great-grandfather is as much a part of this family as any of the other relatives, and ill deserves to be so thoroughly disowned. The counter-argument is that he gave up any claim to this family when he walked out and never returned. And why would Miguel even want to pick up the musician’s mantel anyway, when he’d have to make it entirely on his own without the support he has back home?

All of this makes it easy to understand where Miguel’s antagonists are coming from. And it certainly helps that while they have their differences, we see an abundance of evidence that Miguel’s family truly and deeply loves him. So what are the points in Miguel’s favor? Well, to start with, it’s obviously short-sighted and hopeless to think that every single member of the growing Rivera clan will always avoid music and stay to work at the zapateria from now to eternity. But more to the point… well, Miguel is just that damned good. Pretty much all that Miguel has to fall back on is that he’s destined for greatness as a musician, such that he’d be wasted and miserable doing anything else. There’s no way that could carry any weight unless Miguel had the skills and charisma to back that up, and I have to give major kudos to Anthony Gonzalez and all of the filmmakers for selling it.

The conflict between Miguel and his family is so compelling that all of the other characters are kind of drab by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Gael Garcia Bernal puts in a spirited performance as Hector, a knavish ghoul who assists in Miguel’s quest to advance his own agenda. And if you haven’t already guessed what that agenda is by now, no way I’m telling you. Likewise, Benjamin Bratt is more than charismatic enough to sell Ernesto as a (living) legend, but then we actually meet the character and he gets significantly more predictable and less interesting.

It really is disappointing that the movie should take all this time developing such nuanced and conflicted characters, only to flush that all away with a third act that’s so aggressive in its simplicity. There were seriously at least two plot twists I had seen coming from an hour away, and the movie had to damn near pull a deus ex machina to get the ending where we all knew it had to go.

Even among Miguel’s family, there are some dud supporting players. Aside from namesake Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), Abuelita (Renee Victor), and the aforementioned Mama Imelda, every last one of Miguel’s relatives both living and dead are completely disposable. We’ve also got Dante (I see what you did there, Pixar), the stray dog who serves as Miguel’s comedic sidekick. While he may not be quite as stupid or useless as Heihei of Moana, that’s a low bar to clear and the two characters are definitely in the same class. Oh, and I can’t forget the Clerk (Gabriel Iglesias) who gets only one scene as a blunt and blatant exposition machine.

Yet the film makes up for these relatively weak characters by making them genuinely funny. All of these characters get at least one solid joke or a really good sight gag. In particular, Hector gets a whole ton of sight gags that are simply inspired. There are, however, two exceptions: Ernesto is still a weak character, but Bratt does a fine job of selling him. The other exception is Edward James Olmos, whose character vanishes after maybe two minutes of screen time, but god damn is Olmos good enough to leave an impression with so little time.

Moving on to the music… eh. While I was deeply impressed with the instrumental work and the vocal talent involved (and of course the animation was gorgeous to look at), the lyrics left me cold. This was especially notable in the case of “Remember Me”, the movie’s big Best Original Song contender, hyped within the film as the single greatest hit of Ernesto’s storied career. Yet after all of that buildup, I found the song itself to be lamentably underwritten. It simply didn’t leave enough of an impression. Additionally, as much as I absolutely love Michael Giacchino’s work and I think the world of him as a composer, he was the wrong choice to write the score for this. The movie is so drenched in Mexican culture and music that hiring a non-Latino for the job was a huge mistake, and it shows in the end result.

On a final note, I’m afraid we have to talk about the “Frozen” short that precedes the film. In summary, Olaf goes through the village of Arendelle to hear about all the various holiday traditions out there, because Elsa and Anna don’t have any holiday traditions of their own and we’re supposed to care about it for some reason. It’s a twenty-minute short and there’s something like five or six musical numbers. Not even joking.

Look, Disney, these shorts are never going to generate more advertising revenue, give us the next “Let it Go”, or bring in any moviegoers who wouldn’t have seen the movie otherwise. They’re not going to introduce new ideas, win any Oscar nominations, or give a chance to up-and-coming talent the way Pixar’s short films usually do. All that these short films about Frozen are going to do is run in place.

These pointless and boring short films do not have the screen time or scope to sufficiently develop these characters or expand the world of the franchise. The fans deserve better, the talents behind this franchise deserve better, and to be perfectly honest, the franchise itself deserves better. Yes, I know that the success of Frozen was a happy accident — Disney marketed the film with such brazen incompetence that they clearly didn’t know what they had, so of course they don’t have any idea what to do with what the franchise became. But in this case, it should be obvious that if Frozen 2 is on the way (and it is), then why are we wasting everyone’s time and money on short films that will ultimately prove irrelevant?

Getting back to Coco, it has a story that can be flimsy and uninspired at times, especially during that third act. But even its most glaring flaws are sufficiently covered by jaw-dropping execution. The visuals are colorful, creative, and gorgeous. The cast is uniformly outstanding. The animation — especially during the musical segments — is incredible. The use of Mexican culture and mythology is phenomenal. The best characters are beautifully complex and nuanced, and even the weaker characters work nicely as effective comic relief.

The movie is vibrant, funny, creative, and brimming with heart. Pixar’s greatest strengths are on full display here, and it’s absolutely worth a watch.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted November 25, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Anytime Martin McDonagh comes out with a new project, attention must be paid. His works are crudely hysterical, painfully venomous, wickedly smart, and diabolically creative. He’s easily one of the smartest, funniest, most ruthless and talented writers working today. And now he’s writing/directing a cast with such incredible talents as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters… Seriously, shut up and take my money.

I was expecting great things from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So this is definitely another one of those times when I say that it met my expectations and you should read that as exceedingly high praise.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was raped and murdered roughly seven months prior. All this time later, the police still don’t have any clues or suspects for the crime. And Mildred has officially ran out of fucks to give.

The titular three billboards are old and long-neglected, sitting by a back road that fell out of use when a nearby freeway was built. So Mildred is able to rent those billboards for really cheap. She then proceeds to print on the billboards — in twenty-foot-tall bold black letters on a bright orange background — “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. That last statement refers to the police chief played by Woody Harrelson.

It won’t be easy cataloging the various ways this turns into a massive shitstorm, but I’m gonna try.

First of all, the police are of course upset about this. Doubly so, because no laws are being broken and they can’t do a thing about the billboards. What’s more, the police insist that they’re doing all they can, over Mildred’s demands and suggestions that would violate numerous civil rights. However, based on what we see of Ebbing’s police department (specifically the two cops played by Sam Rockwell and Zeljko Ivanek), it seems that the local cops aren’t really genius detectives so much as they’re blunt instruments. They’re out to put the least possible amount of thought or effort into their work, which means pinning everything on the first colored suspect and applying extreme physical pressure until the case is closed.

Secondly, the community doesn’t like the billboards either, since it’s such a small tight-knit community and everybody’s friends with someone on the police force. “We all support you in your time of grief,” everyone tells Mildred, “and we’d do anything to help catch your daughter’s killer, but we can’t support this.” As if renting out billboards and making a statement was worse than raping and murdering a teenaged girl. Everyone’s fine with offering thoughts and prayers, but heaven forbid anyone should stick their neck out to be of any real help.

But then we have Mildred’s family. Her son and her ex-husband (respectively played by Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes) both want to move on with their lives, putting this unspeakably horrific tragedy behind them. It’s hard to blame them, especially when Mildred keeps bringing this whole thing up in the (possibly, probably) vain hope that the murder will ever be solved. Though Mildred’s ex-husband dealt with the loss by leaving her for a vapidly beautiful 19-year-old girl (Penelope, played by Samara Weaving), so there’s that.

To recap, death and grieving are both huge central themes of the movie, and they’re explored in creative and heartbreaking ways. Yet the film is far more focused on matters of justice. There’s vigilante justice, the rule of law, and when it’s right to take matters into one’s own hands. There’s the dilemma of whether to confess, how to achieve redemption, and whether redemption is even possible. And of course there’s a lot of timely discussion about racism, police brutality, accountability in law enforcement, and the unfortunate tendency for meatheaded bullies to go training for a badge just so they can get a gun to use with impunity. To say nothing of how conflict tends to escalate and hatred begets more hatred until things go too far and there’s unintended damage. Oh, and there’s also a sprinkling of toxic masculinity just for good measure.

All of these themes and ideas dovetail beautifully together, in large part because McDonagh is so incredible at juggling so many different storylines. The man is such a master of setups and payoffs, weaving in so many misdirections and lines of thought, that you’ll never see how the different through-lines intersect until you’re picking your jaw up off the floor. It’s really astounding how the characters develop in totally unexpected ways, taking the plot in so many unpredictable directions, so that all the different plot turns feel perfectly natural even as they hit like one sucker punch after another.

The cast is uniformly incredible. From top to bottom, first to last, every last performer works wonders with this sterling material. Every starring and supporting performance is Oscar-worthy, and all the one-off characters steal their scenes. Some of the one-off characters even start recurring in unexpected and satisfying ways. That said, while Abbie Cornish is a delight to watch, her role as Woody Harrelson’s wife really should have gone to an older actor.

For miscellaneous notes, of course the movie is positively loaded with the kind of pitch-black, razor-sharp, profanity-laden humor we’d expect from McDonagh. The visuals are also quite solid — in particular, there’s this recurring use of red light against the actors’ faces that looks very striking.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a phenomenal movie from a storytelling genius. The dialogue flies off the page, the performances are astounding, and the plot is compelling in how unpredictable it is. There are layers upon layers of compelling and timely themes, all explored in bold and shocking ways. It’s funny, violent, intelligent, and surprising as could only be done by this cast and crew.

This definitely qualifies as don’t-miss material. Go see it.

Lady Bird

Posted November 24, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

The trailer for this one had me puzzled at first. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of what I was watching until I saw those magic words on the screen: “Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig.” And pretty much immediately, I thought “Yeah, this is what a movie written and directed by Gerwig would look like.”

For those just tuning in, Gerwig is easily one of the foremost figures in mumblecore. She made her name with romantic dramedies that are awkwardly neurotic, endlessly talkative, and insufferably white. Among the more notable examples are Frances Ha, Greenberg, and Maggie’s Plan; though Gerwig has more recently stepped a bit outside her comfort zone with 20th Century Women and Jackie, both of which featured two of her best performances to date.

In any case, Gerwig — and the mumblecore movement in general — are such critical darlings that of course her directorial debut came out to a 100-percent Tomatometer. And sure enough, Lady Bird is indeed a good movie. But is it really that good?

Well, to start with, it tells the story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who — for reasons known only to herself — will only answer to her self-given name of “Lady Bird”. The movie spans her entire senior year of high school in a scant 90-minute runtime without ever feeling rushed, so chalk up one incredible feat of filmmaking right out of the gate. And it’s not like this movie skips any of the huge milestones, either — we follow Lady Bird through homecoming, the school play, prom, Graduation Day, and her eighteenth birthday, right up to her first few days in college. But what’s remarkable about this is that while every event is given its due weight, none of them are overhyped. After all, while these high school rites of passage may be of great personal importance and the product of so many months of planning and anticipation, they’re ultimately mundane in how everyone goes through them and they’re gone before you know it.

While the film portrays that in a masterful way, an exception is made for the selection of where Lady Bird will go to college. This is the de facto main thrust of the plot, as there are so many factors involved. Among them are Lady Bird’s own subpar grades, her total lack of ambition or future goals, and her overwhelming ennui with her home city of Sacramento. Additionally, the film takes place in the school year of 2002-2003 — while 9/11 is still fresh and the Iraq War is just winding up — so there’s a perception that Lady Bird’s precious East Coast isn’t the safest place to be. Oh, and money is also an issue, that should go without saying.

And a lot of these issues come back to her parents. More specifically, her mother.

Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) is a nurse and the family’s sole breadwinner since her husband (Larry, played by Tracy Letts) got laid off. So Marion has to be nice and supportive for people all day long even as she lives in crushing fear of bankruptcy, on top of the general fear that any kind of harm could come to those in her care. She takes all of this stress onto herself for the sake of those that she loves, and it has to go somewhere, so she takes it out on her daughter. It’s not that she doesn’t mean well or that she doesn’t love her daughter, it’s just that they drive each other absolutely insane in such a unique way that they can’t live without pushing each other.

It’s almost like Marion is convinced that she’s failed as a mother, completely incapable of granting Lady Bird what she needs in spite of her absolute best efforts. And her shouting matches with Lady Bird give a strange kind of comfort by justifying her guilt. Yet it’s entirely clear that Marion and Lady Bird love each other, even if they are so perfectly convinced of their own inferiority that they don’t know how to be a closer family. It’s a complex relationship that’s easier to feel than explain, and major kudos are due all around for making it work so well.

One example of the mother/daughter dynamic concerns the state of Lady Bird’s clothes. The two of them do their clothes shopping at the local thrift store, yet Marion wants their clothes to be kept spotless so nobody can see how poor they are. Clothes, houses, cars, and other such signs of material wealth are a huge recurring motif. So much of the movie revolves around matters of socioeconomic disparity, especially in how it affects high school politics. Sexuality is another prominent theme — Lady Bird and all of her friends are trying to figure out their sexual identity under the shame and repression of going to a Catholic School. So throw religion and homophobia onto the pile as well. In point of fact, the more general concept of identity is made prominent through Christine/Lady Bird’s name. Depression comes up once or twice, with reflections on the relationship between wealth, happiness, and success. And of course there’s a lot about the relationship between parents and children, how one eventually supplants the other, and so on.

But easily the most central theme in the whole movie is love. Specifically, there’s one character who proposes that love and attention are the same thing. Of course we should all know how blatantly false that is, and how it can often lead to abusive relationships. (“He’s only pulling on your pigtails because he likes you!”) Hell, the movie itself seems to disprove the notion, based on how many times Lady Bird gets crushed by unhealthy friendships and romances that she only allows to happen because the right people pay attention to her. That isn’t even getting started on Lady Bird’s best friend (Julie, played by Beanie Feldstein), who nurtures a crush on her math teacher because he thinks she’s such an amazing student.

Rather, the movie implicitly makes a much stronger case for a relationship between love and communication. All throughout the film, we see cases in which the characters are only screaming at each other because of how much they love each other. They’re dispensing the kind of harsh truths and deep emotional pain that can only be traded between people who have known and cared for each other over several years. Moreover, whether it’s keeping secrets or sticking to the silent treatment, the characters are never in greater pain than when they don’t talk to each other.

To be clear, very little if any of this is ever made explicit. It’s really quite astonishing how all of these layers are painted with such a subtle brush. There are so many nuances to be found here, and all of it is used to make for complex and full-fleshed characters. Unfortunately, the film may have been too subtle for its own good. The movie takes such a soft approach to so many different themes that it doesn’t make a coherent statement on any one particular issue. There are so many good little moments to be found here, but no one moment that made me sit up with the realization that I had found a masterpiece. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a movie that so effectively draws the audience in and invites us to connect the dots for ourselves. I find it safe to wager that no two people would see this movie in quite the same way. Hell, I could probably see this movie a second time and come out of it with totally different viewpoints. There’s a lot to be said for that.

There’s not a single dud in the cast. There are so many incredible Oscar-worthy performances in this piece that I’d feel bad about singling any of them out. So instead, I’ll talk about how Danielle Macdonald is in this movie and only got one line as “Another Young Lady”. Seriously. Take it from someone who’s seen Patti Cake$, this is not a good use of your Danielle Macdonald. But I digress.

The other big star here is of course screenwriter Greta Gerwig. Every single line of dialogue is razor-sharp, which of course makes the shouting matches so much more painful. Yet this also extends to the comedy, which has a quick and stinging sense of humor. There are so many great moments in here, when characters make some withering wisecrack or a remark that shows how dangerously ignorant they are. But then we also have the scene in which a JV football coach is brought in to direct a school play, which of course he does as if he was coaching a football game. It’s funny in its execution, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also broad and cartoonish in a way that doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. Even the “lone wolf anarchist musician” stereotype (referring to the love interest played by Timothee Chalamet) was handled more gracefully and honestly than this.

(Side note: Greta Gerwig is also a Sacramento native and the daughter of a nurse, who grew up in a Catholic all-girls high school. I have no idea how much of this was supposed to be autobiographical, but here we are.)

On a final note, I have to address how inescapably white this movie is, in keeping with most of Gerwig’s other movies. Mercifully, this one is a marginally less offensive case in point, as it’s made perfectly clear that Lady Bird and her family are genuinely poor and not just middle-class yuppies making their own problems (see: Maggie’s Plan). The attention paid to living as a closeted homosexual is another plus. Also, Lady Bird has a brother (Miguel, played by Jordan Rodrigues) who lives at home with his girlfriend (Shelly, played by Marielle Scott). It’s never once explained how Lady Bird came to have a Latino brother. Is this a statement on racial acceptance and the legitimacy of interracial adoption, or a token brown character who got carelessly shoehorned in? I’ll let you be the judge.

All told, I’m glad to say that Lady Bird is a good movie. It’s beautifully crafted, with fine pacing, killer dialogue, and phenomenal performances from top to bottom. It’s funny, it’s incisive, and the characters are nuanced to a deeply impressive degree. But what I keep coming back to is that the movie makes so many small and subtle statements about so many disparate subjects, without making any one huge and mind-blowing statement. That’s pretty much the only thing holding this movie back from being a true masterpiece.

As it is, the movie is totally an awards contender and deservedly so. Definitely worth your time.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Posted November 23, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

So I took a weekend off and I’m insanely behind schedule. At least I have a long weekend to catch up! So I went to my local multiplex for a fun round of Cinema Grab Bag to see which of a half-dozen critically acclaimed movies I’d be reviewing tonight. And luck of the draw was a strange one this time.

To call this film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is admittedly rather pretentious. After all, it isn’t a movie about Jesus Christ or Santa Claus, never mind all the Winter Solstice traditions that predate both of them by a long shot. Rather, this is a movie about Charles Dickens (here played by Dan Stevens) and the story of how he wrote “A Christmas Carol”.

It would be fair to say that while Christmas itself predates Dickens by a good 1500 years (at least), precious few before or since did more than him to shape the holiday as we know it now. When we talk about Christmas as a time for peace on earth and good will toward all, it’s just as likely (if not more so) that we’re talking about Ebenezer Scrooge instead of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a time for family and absolving past differences. It’s a time of magic and nostalgia and romance. I don’t know how much of that was ingrained in the holiday before “A Christmas Carol”, but Dickens’ instant literary classic permanently and beautifully fused all of this into the Christmas spirit through a development arc so perfectly defined that we continue to see it in one adaptation after another over nearly two centuries later.

The story has been endlessly parodied and dissected in every conceivable way. On the surface, this may seem like a potential hazard for the film, since it seems like we already know the whole story backwards and forwards. On the other hand, the origin story behind “A Christmas Carol” itself isn’t so universally known that we couldn’t benefit from a movie about it. Moreover, the Carol has so much instantly recognizable imagery that could be cleverly utilized, providing us with an emotional window into the story. Yes, that’s a common tactic with these “story behind the story” movies (And seriously, how many of those have we already seen this year?) but it could still be quite effective here.

Well, the bad news is that the circumstances surrounding the book’s creation (as depicted in the movie, anyway) really aren’t all that interesting. Charles Dickens has had a string of flops, he’s up to his ears in debt, nobody will publish his crazy idea for a ghost story about Christmas (especially since he’d have to take the whole thing from zero to published in a mere six weeks to make Christmastime), so Dickens has to finance the whole thing himself and blah blah blah. That isn’t even getting started on the family drama with his wife, his kids, his house staff, his freeloading father (here played by Jonathan Pryce), and so on. There’s also Dickens’ friend John Forster (Justin Edwards), who hangs around for no given reason and has his own barely-existent romantic subplot. Oh, and let’s not forget all the flashbacks to Dickens’ youth: In the movie (as in real life), Dickens spent much of his childhood working in a factory while his father was locked away in a debtors’ prison.

I realize that given the subject matter, there was always going to be some risk of veering toward the saccharine. And while all of this isn’t anywhere near as sappy as it could’ve been, it’s still pretty dull and cliched. Really, all of this stuff is only compelling to the extent that it informs how and why Dickens wrote his holiday classic. Which brings us to the good news.

Somewhere around the half-hour mark, Dickens finally gets the divine inspiration to write his book and conjures Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) out of his imagination. Other characters quickly follow suit. As a result, we get so many different scenes of Dickens talking with his characters, trying to figure out who they are and how to get them to tell this story. What’s potentially even more amusing is that the characters start talking back, forcing Dickens to take a closer look at who he is and why this story has to be told the way it is.

(Side note: Speaking from my own experience as a writer, it’s equally disturbing and comforting how closely this presentation mirrors certain discussions I’ve had with my own characters.)

The movie speculates that while Scrooge may have started out as a pointed commentary on the selfishness and greed surrounding Dickens in Victorian London, the character also stems from the darkness within his author. Thus, as Dickens is forced to grapple with the question of if and how Scrooge can be redeemed for his trespasses, Dickens has to ask that same question of himself. As Scrooge must confront his tragic past and uncertain future, realizing and facing his fears along the way, so must Dickens. That’s not to say that the two stories are perfectly identical, of course — Scrooge and Dickens are still two very different people with very different sets of personal demons. But there are moments of overlap that make for surprisingly potent storytelling.

“A Christmas Carol” has such a flawless, textbook development arc that applying it to Dickens was frankly a stroke of genius. Not only is it used to show the flashes of inspiration that would eventually become the novel, thus telling the novel’s origin in a way that brings new life to the text, but it also gives Charles Dickens the character a satisfying development arc in a way that gracefully humanizes the historical figure. Alas, for better and for worse, this approach is only as strong as its main actor.

To be clear, it’s not that Dan Stevens is horrible — it’s just that he has a very limited range. Stevens does beautifully in scenes that demand great intensity, so he’s aces at portraying a tormented genius or a writer on a divinely inspired creative frenzy. But in those softer and slower moments, the spark just isn’t there. His Dickens is so much more alive when he’s talking to his characters, and he only seems barely present when he’s with anyone else, which I guess might say something about the character if that’s what they were going for.

Christopher Plummer is an absolute joy to watch, and Jonathan Pryce does the best with his part that anyone could’ve asked for. A shout-out is also due to Anna Murphy, who turns in a lovely performance as Dickens’ meek nanny and test audience (she also appears briefly in Dickens’ imagination as the Ghost of Christmas Past). Alas, nobody else in the supporting cast is worth a mention. It speaks volumes that Justin Edwards got so much screen time as Forster, and all I could think about him was “Who are you and why are you here?”

I’m sorry to say that The Man Who Invented Christmas falls flat when it veers away from Dickens’ process of creating “A Christmas Carol”. The good news is that this process takes up so much screen time, and it’s so delightful to watch, that this ultimately isn’t a dealbreaker. The film works beautifully as a fair, honest, and insightful portrait of Dickens, bolstered by the use of so much familiar text and imagery. Of course it helps that Dickens’ discussions with his characters are beautifully realized, Plummer is fantastic as Scrooge, and Stevens is pretty solid when he’s on point. Perhaps most importantly, this movie does a fine job of dissecting the social and personal themes of the source text while examining the finer details of the novel’s plot and why everything has to unfold exactly the way it does. (Whether Tiny Tim lives or dies is an especially prominent case in point.)

It’s a sweet little movie that serves as a reminder of why we need “A Christmas Carol.” This one turned out better than I expected, which admittedly isn’t saying much. It’s worth a look.