THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: James Franco

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

(based on the book THE DISASTER ARTIST by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell)

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Allison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Hannibal Buress, Andrew Santino, June Diane Raphael, Nathan Fielder, Brian Huskey, Sharon Stone, Paul Scheer & Jason Mantzoukas

Is it possible to make a great movie about the making of one of the worst movies ever made? Well, Tim Burton already did something along those lines with 1994’s ED WOOD. Now, James Franco has done something similar in 2017’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, THE DISASTER ARTIST chronicles the true story behind the making of THE ROOM, which is widely considered to be one of the worst films of all-time. THE DISASTER ARTIST could have been a hilarious romp that mercilessly took down a weird individual and his passion project. Instead, THE DISASTER ARTIST is hilarious, poignant, and heartfelt! This is a movie about following your dreams…even if those dreams fail miserably.

The year is 1998 and the place is San Francisco, California. Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a 19-year-old aspiring actor who has trouble emoting in his performances. That all changes when Greg meets strangely accented weirdo Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Wiseau is fearless in his acting methods, but have a shred of talent in his performances. When Greg and Tommy fail at the seemingly impossible battle to make it big, Tommy decides to write and direct his own movie…with Greg as one of the leading stars. What results is the bafflingly inept production on one of the worst films ever made and a failure so spectacular that it just might be considered a success in its own baffling way.

James Franco has directed films before and none of them seem to be any good. The most recent Franco-directed effort that I sat through was his disappointing adaptation of William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I was a bit hesitant that Franco was at the helm of this project, but he thankfully proved all my better judgement wrong. THE DISASTER ARTIST is fantastic and Franco seems like the perfect person to bring it to the screen. Besides the real-world Los Angeles atmosphere that the film evokes, Franco pulls double-duty and plays the role of Tommy Wiseau. To put it bluntly, Franco’s Wiseau impression is pitch-perfect. He has all of the mannerisms down and the unique way of speaking (complete with his unique laugh). Franco nailed this performance!

THE DISASTER ARTIST’s supporting cast sports a bevy of big talent, including Franco’s younger brother Dave in the role of Greg. Though it might be odd to have two brothers acting alongside each other as unrelated characters, this illusion is completely convincing. Dave Franco plays Greg as a level-headed guy who just happens to be friends with the world’s biggest weirdo and has a good heart. Though this film is about the making of THE ROOM, the friendship between Greg and Tommy is the main focus of THE DISASTER ARTIST. Conversations between them range from funny to occasionally intense, as the production brings out serious anger in a few crew members (Greg included).

Other recognizable faces include celebrity cameos and big names in supporting roles. Seth Rogen is especially hilarious as a script supervisor who tries to help Tommy out, but is constantly blindsided by the director’s ego-driven decisions. Paul Scheer is notable as a pissed-off director of photography and really gets his time to shine in the film’s darkest moment (involving an outburst during the filming of one of THE ROOM’s many gratuitous sex scenes). Josh Hutcherson is also quite funny as Philip Haldiman (who played the creepy teenage-ish Denny) and Jacki Weaver gets one great monologue as aged actress Carolyn Minnott (who played Lisa’s cancer-stricken mother).

THE DISASTER ARTIST is likely to win over fans of THE ROOM by injecting some semblance of sense into the sheer incoherence of that film’s final cut. There were lots of scenes in which I immediately thought “Okay, now that part of THE ROOM makes a little more sense.” These moments come as early as the beginning when we see Tommy and Greg watching REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, admiring one line that gets repeated in one of THE ROOM’s most memorable moments. We also see how certain on-set decisions directly affected the entire flow of that film’s insanity. Why did Mark try to throw someone off a roof? Why did Johnny throw a water bottle in a fit of rage? Why does Tommy Wiseau’s hair look like it’s constantly wet? All of these mysteries and more are answered in the course of THE DISASTER ARTIST’s 103-minute running time.

The biggest reason why THE DISASTER ARTIST works is because it’s a story about somebody following their dreams and doing something they love, even if they are absolutely terrible at it. This film captures the love for THE ROOM, whilst also showing the connection that someone can have with their own artistic material. THE DISASTER ARTIST is sure to delight THE ROOM’s cult crowd, whilst also serving as a fantastic piece of filmmaking for moviegoers who enjoy great dramas and comedies. This film is about friendship, ambition, failure, and unexpected success. THE DISASTER ARTIST is just as genuinely moving as it is hilarious. This is one of the best films I’ve sat through in 2017!

Grade: A+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

Mockingjay2 poster

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

Mockjay1 poster

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Frightening Images, Thematic Elements, a Suggestive Situation and Language

Catching Fire poster

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt

(based on the novel CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer & Jeffrey Wright

I should preface this review with saying that I am not a fan of the first HUNGER GAMES. I found it to be bland, silly, and a total rip-off of the superior-in-every-way BATTLE ROYALE. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was far from a good or even serviceable one. This being said, my expectations for CATCHING FIRE were nil when it was first announced. I thought this series was going to become another TWILIGHT SAGA full of half-realized ideas, boring characters, and a squealing teenage girl fan base. There was something about the previews that suggested this would top the original though. Having now seen it, I would place CATCHING FIRE is in the same category as THOR 2. They’re both superior to their mediocre first installments and wind up being enjoyable in their own right.

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Taking place shortly after the events of THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are both reeling from the horrific games they both participated in. They are also selling their fake romance for the cameras in order to keep themselves alive. With the menacing President Snow watching her every move, Katniss tries to show how “real” her love for Peeta is, but this is not enough. The 75th Annual Hunger Games is here and the rules have changed. Instead of new tributes being selected from each of the 12 Districts, the tributes will be previous champions of the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a new arena with all kinds of threats, including the hardened killers they are fighting against. Can they survive this new breed of game?

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Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss Everdeen, a character that wound up being purely one-dimensional in the first installment. Josh Hutcherson is equally as good as Peeta, whose actual affection for Katniss is going unnoticed by her. As far as the other characters go, everybody else isn’t given as much time as I would have hoped. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks reprise their roles and so does Donald Sutherland. A welcome new addition to the group is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game maker (an awesome replacement for the position that wooden Wes Bentley filled in the predecessor). Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, and Jeffrey Wright also show up as former victors of the Hunger Games.

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The build up to the actual Hunger Games themselves is about as long as the first film’s (nearly 50 minutes or so). In this case, the build up is earned. We see how traumatized Katniss is and I thought this was an intelligent element to throw in this series. The Games had consequences and they are shown to the audience in creative ways. The slow, steady pace that shows the potential impending doom for the protagonists makes for an intense experience for the first third. Little details are thrown in about the competition that Katniss and Peeta will be facing off against and this had a lot of promise. The use of outside elements (dangerous creatures, contained disasters, and an arena with a very special layout) make for some very exciting sequences.

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Not all is perfect though. It’s clear that the film was shying away from some of the payoff to keep the PG-13 rating. Seriously, what’s the point of having a character with sharpened fangs if you never show her use them? Some of the CGI is a bit iffy. The shoddily animated baboons are infinitely better than those poor excuses for dogs in the original film though. The government that runs the Hunger Games themselves is sloppily run and there are a few plot holes to be found. The ending is also loaded with plenty of bombshells dropped in the last 10 minutes that will leave fans eager for November 2014 to arrive with the MOCKINGJAY PART 1 (since every franchise seems willing to milk their movies for every possible cent).

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In the end, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a winner. It’s not fantastic or terrific, but it’s very good and plenty of fun. The tension exists far more here than in the sub-par original. The cast do well with what they’ve been given (in some cases, it’s not much) and the movie delivers on being a creative piece of Science Fiction. If you’re looking for an amazing movie based on intelligent Sci-Fi, then watch the far better ENDER’S GAME. If you dug the first HUNGER GAMES (which I didn’t like) or are willing to give this series one more chance, then THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a sequel that outdoes the original in every possible way. It’s far from amazing, but it’s very good. Recommended!

Grade: B

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