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+

ALLIED (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, some Sexuality/Nudity, Language and brief Drug Use

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Anton Lesser, August Diehl, Camille Cottin & Charlotte Hope

On the surface, ALLIED sounds like a great film. It’s set during World War II and is rated R, meaning that we get graphic violence of undercover agents fighting Nazis. Robert Zemeckis has helmed many notable films in the past, meaning there was a sturdy hand behind the camera. Steven Knight has written stellar work in the past, turning a car ride into an intense drama and delivering one of the best gangster films of the 2000s. ALLIED also places Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard into a premise that sounds like it would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. However, this movie is just okay. Despite all of that promise and potential, this is a decent enough romantic-thriller that doesn’t really do anything remarkable.

The year is 1942 and the place is Casablanca. Canadian Air Force officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) has arrived on a top-secret assassination mission. Max has been assigned the role of “husband” to his French Resistance partner Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). Though the two begin as a fictional couple, Max and Marianne become a real couple after their mission succeeds. The two are madly in love and have a child together, which makes it all the more strange when Max is called in on a top-secret mission. You see, the higher-ups at Max’s job believe that Marianne may be a German spy. With a ticking clock and crucial information at hand, Max decides to disobey his superiors and investigate whether his newest mission is only a test or if his wife is actually a deadly double-agent.

ALLIED had plenty of potential from its Hitchcock-esque premise to the staggering amount of talent involved (both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes), but the film frequently falters under its own bloated weight. This period piece drama feels like a thriller that’s also trying juggle being a love story and potential Oscar bait. The end result is a mixed bag. There are strong moments though. Don’t get me wrong. A few sequences have a knack for turning everyday encounters and seemingly mild-mannered moments into something very tense. There is a palpable sense of a suspense and a ticking clock of urgency, while the script occasionally jerks the viewer’s suspicions around.

However, ALLIED takes a while to get into its thriller set-up. By a while, I mean that two-thirds of this film are actually the romantic thriller that was advertised, while the other third is dedicated to the couple falling in love amidst a war-torn country. There is enough believable chemistry between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard to make you wonder if those tabloid rumors about an affair were true. Pitt and Cotillard play characters who are trying to go about their lives in severe circumstances (like frequent air raids as they try to tuck in for the night), but a few supporting faces stick out as well.

Jared Harris is phenomenal as Max’s commanding officer. His screen time may be limited, but Harris makes a strong impression as a tough-as-nails, good-hearted soldier who’s trying to do the right thing. Matthew Goode has a blink-and-you-missed it scene as a former veteran. Meanwhile, Simon McBurney is totally wasted as a “rat-catcher” for spies. His initial introduction was so strong that it made me excited to see more of this confrontational character. Unfortunately, that introduction is the only scene he’s present in. It also bears mentioning that German actor August Diehl played a scumbag Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and returns here…as another scumbag Nazi.

Even when ALLIED’s good performances, classy production values and so-so suspense works, the script gets bogged down in dull stretches of not much happening. Brad Pitt runs to one place and talks to a guy…only for that scene to be ultimately rendered pointless. So, he runs to another place and talks to another guy, but that might be a red herring. This process repeats throughout the film’s running time. Great thrillers can be made of dialogue and conversations. Just look at any of the recent John le Carre adaptations (e.g. A MOST WANTED MAN and THE NIGHT MANAGER). ALLIED isn’t one of these. Instead, it’s just poorly paced and lazily written.

This movie feels like it’s suffering from an identity crisis about what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a WWII drama? Is this a Hitchcockian thriller? Is this a beautiful love story or a star-powered piece of failed Oscar bait? It’s a combination of all of these and winds up as a mixed bag of a movie that’s okay at best. This film is watchable and has a handful of good qualities, but that’s not necessarily high praise. When you consider all of the talent that went into it, ALLIED seems like even more of a letdown. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but just disappointingly decent.

Grade: B-

THE NIGHT BEFORE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use and Language throughout, some Strong Sexual Content and Graphic Nudity

NightBefore poster

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Written by: Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine & Ariel Shaffir

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling & Lorraine Toussaint

I’m a fan of Seth Rogen. Though his comedies completely hinge on juvenile humor and an overuse of profanity, I really enjoy most of his films. Just last year, I gave good reviews to both NEIGHBORS and THE INTERVIEW. THE NIGHT BEFORE looked like Rogen and crew were taking on the holiday season with hard R-rated style. While the film definitely relies on juvenile humor and contains a ton of profanity (two elements that I’ve enjoyed in the past), it really struggles with its story and characters. The screenplay (constructed by four writers) can’t decide on whether this wants to be your typical Rogen vehicle or a Christmas Eve dramedy. Whatever the film wanted to be, it simply doesn’t function very well as it tries to be both of these things at the same time.

NightBefore 1

Ethan, Isaac and Chris are three best friends who have made a tradition of hanging out on Christmas Eve for the past fourteen years. This originally sprung from Ethan’s parents dying in a car accident and leaving him with no family to celebrate the holidays with. Over a decade later, the annual routine of drunk traditions has gotten dull and repetitive as Isaac and Chris both have obligations in their adult lives, while Ethan remains a stunted man-child. Seeing as this is their last Christmas Eve out on the town together, Ethan obtains three tickets to the most exclusive Christmas party in the city. As the hours tick closer to the party, Chris attempts to track down a thief on the streets and Isaac experiences a hallucinatory journey of self-discovery thanks to a box of drugs.

NightBefore 2

THE NIGHT BEFORE is an R-rated holiday comedy that falls victim to a wildly uneven tone. On one hand, it plays out like a typical Rogen vehicle, albeit a slightly lazy one. On the other, the film tries so hard to include an emotional core that only shows up for a couple of scenes. This sappy underbelly feels especially unearned during the last 20 minutes of the film. It’s not as if a crude comedy can’t be emotional (e.g. KNOCKED UP), but the story here is basic and relies on overly familiar set pieces. The tone of the film doesn’t match up when in one scene we have a supposedly heartfelt conversation about parenthood and then in the very next shot Rogen is hallucinating that his wife is a dragon beast. This is all complete with cartoony CGI hallucinations that we see. These moments aren’t plentiful, but they do stick out like a sore thumb.

NightBefore 3

This all being said, Rogen definitely earns the biggest laughs in this otherwise lackluster film. It’s too bad that those laughs mainly come from two scenes in particular, one of which is mostly revealed in the trailer. There’s a NSFW phone conversation that had me cracking up and a church scene that had me rolling. The rest of the film only contains a handful of chuckles. The plot doesn’t do much to service the talents of its three main stars. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie are wasted here. Michael Shannon has more of a personality as a weird pot dealer than these two performers have as the main characters alongside Rogen. It’s worth noting that Shannon’s mere presence is far funnier than any of the actual scenes he’s been given. The rest of the cast contains a few familiar faces with Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell and Mindy Kaling who are decent enough in their roles, but serve more as set-ups to jokes rather than actual characters (which is what this script tries to make them by the conclusion).

NightBefore 4

Suffering from unconvincing tonal shifts, stale jokes, and forced sentimentality, THE NIGHT BEFORE is one of the bigger disappointments that I’ve had this year. Rogen is definitely the best part of the film, but everything else is wildly uneven with a handful of chuckles and a plot that strains its running time. Aside from two solid sequences (one of which is given away in the trailer), THE NIGHT BEFORE is a mostly forgettable slog. Just stick to other R-rated Christmas comedies (e.g. THE REF, BAD SANTA) or pretty much any other Seth Rogen comedy out there. THE NIGHT BEFORE is a disappointing lump of coal.

Grade: D+

THE INTERVIEW (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Crude and Sexual Humor, Nudity, some Drug Use and Bloody Violence

Interview poster

Directed by: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

Written by: Dan Sterling

Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons, Charles Rahi Chun & Rob Lowe

It has become impossible to bring up THE INTERVIEW without mentioning the unnecessary controversy around it. I would be silly to summarize the ridiculous situation that erupted before this film’s release (you already all know about it), but will say that all the news surrounding THE INTERVIEW was hyping me up to see this movie. In all honesty, I was pretty stoked. Instead of going the VOD route, luck would have it that a movie theater within reasonable distance was showing this film (complete with extra security and all). If North Korea hadn’t issued threats and Sony wasn’t hacked, then THE INTERVIEW would have come and gone as a good comedy that might be mentioned from time to time. Instead, this movie has now become an unintentional event film and seeing it in a sold out theater definitely contributed to my overall enjoyment. The film isn’t going to be as funny or entertaining if watched directly from YouTube or by yourself in a living room. If at all possible, go see THE INTERVIEW in a theater.

Interview 1

Dave Skylark is the popular host of a trashy talk show that covers insignificant celebrity stories masquerading as serious news. His producer, Aaron, is sick of having created 1,000 episodes of cheap excuses for journalism and encourages Skylark to aim higher. This results in an interview being set up with feared dictator Kim Jong-Un in the far recesses of North Korea. Before Skylark and Aaron can catch their flight to Korea, the CIA recruits the pair into an assassination plot to take down Kim. Things don’t go as simply as planned due to Dave’s stupidity, Aaron hitting on one of Kim’s officials, and Kim seeming like a nice guy. Wacky hijinks and political poop jokes ensue, as well as a lot of unnecessary controversy in the real world.

Seth Rogen;James Franco;Lizzy Caplan

If you’re not a fan of Seth Rogen comedies, you’re probably not going to like THE INTERVIEW. However, I think Rogen is very funny and has far more hits than misfires. Flaunting a creative and ingenious (in bad taste) premise, the film is as juvenile and raunchy as to be expected. Rogen and Franco still have good chemistry as believable best friends. Rogen is a more serious straight-man than usual and Franco is the biggest dumbass he’s ever played. Some might find Franco to be the funniest part of the film (I’ll get more into that later on), but I found that mostly unknown Randall Park stole the show as Kim Jong-Un. Besides capturing the evil that lies beneath a good guy persona he puts on for Skylark, Park manages to get a majority of the big laughs from his nuances and goofiness as the shy dictator with a horrible hair style.

Interview 3

THE INTERVIEW was filmed in Vancouver, but you could have fooled me as this looks convincingly like North Korea (not that I’ve ever been there or plan on visiting there). Lots of digital trickery was employed to sell this film as appearing to take place in one of the most dangerous countries on the planet and I fell for every bit of it. The sense of humor is riskier this time around compared to Rogen’s previous work. You’d imagine that it would have to be given that this comedy revolves around the potential assassination of a world leader, but it gets graphically gory and far darker than I was initially expecting. It’s very R-rated (tons of profanity, wacky violence, and over-the-top sex) and should entertain fans of this kind of comedy. I was cracking up through multiple points in the film, a highlight of which being Rogen’s night-time encounter with a Siberian Tiger.

James Franco;Seth Rogen

THE INTERVIEW is not high-brow filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination and can get too juvenile. Though some have praised Franco’s moronic Skylark, I actually found him to be the most trying character in the film. Rogen and Park got far more laughs out of me. Lizzy Caplan (who was awesome in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE) is underused as the CIA agent recruiting the pair of would-be assassins. The film compromises an otherwise hilarious crucial moment with a poop joke that felt distracting. There were also five running jokes that are used throughout the movie (right down until the end) that really aren’t amusing the first time around and become eye-rolling by the fourth time we get a certain piece of dialogue. Besides these flat jokes and two so-so characters, THE INTERVIEW is a lot of fun!

Interview 5

Despite how you feel about it, THE INTERVIEW has left a brief spot in cinematic history and will be discussed for absurd controversy in future years (potentially decades) to come. I can see how others might not enjoy it as much as I did, but I had a great time watching this movie. Maybe, I was partially built up to like it because of the controversy and watching it in a large sold out movie theater probably hoisted this film’s grade for me as well. If you haven’t watched THE INTERVIEW and plan on doing so, go see it with a packed audience or invite some friends over and make a party of it. Either of those would make for an ideal viewing experience. Thanks to all the craziness, hacking, and international threats, THE INTERVIEW 2 won’t happen, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. Do Putin next!

Grade: B+

CLOVERFIELD (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images

Cloverfield poster

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Drew Goddard

Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Odette Yustman, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel

The found footage genre seems tailor-made to tell stories on a small-scale. How else might one explain all those terrible backyard horror flicks that populate this unique subgenre spawned from a somewhat creative storytelling technique? What sets CLOVERFIELD apart from its handheld brethren is that this one is set on a massive scale. If told in a traditional narrative, this J.J. Abrams produced project would have been just another blockbuster giant monster movie. Told in this POV way, we are stuck following a group of civilians stuck on ground zero. These people would have been regulated to a single moment (probably involving either being squished or eaten by the monster) in the usual Hollywood picture, but we’re stuck with them on a thrill-ride that is being enjoyable enough. It also has some major flaws that stick out like a sore thumb.

Cloverfield 1

A title card informs us that this is footage recovered from the site formerly known as Central Park. We then cut to the recovered recording itself. A group of friends and relatives are throwing a surprise party for their buddy Rob. He’s going away to Japan for business and his best friend, Hud, is recording his farewell party so there will be a little piece of his friends to go to Japan with him. The party is interrupted when a minor earthquake rumbles across the city. Turns out that it’s something much worse. A giant creature has risen from the ocean and is terrorizing New York City. This nasty beast is doing all sorts of crazy shit. This includes but is not limited to: leveling buildings, devouring bystanders, and ripping Lady Liberty’s head clean off her shoulders. Rob, Hud, and a few other friends in tow make their way across the toppling city to rescue Rob’s secret lover. The massive creature isn’t the only threat around though and the viewer witnesses all this destruction through the lens of the recovered camera.

Cloverfield 2

Taken at pure spectacle value, CLOVERFIELD is a visual rollercoaster ride. Part of this is because the camera always seems to conveniently capture a shot of the mayhem we want to see from clear angles. Plenty of explosions, action involving the titular monster, and over-the-top scenarios play out much to the entertainment of the viewer. This is absolutely a style over substance film, but it satisfies as a wild time (this movie will always play much better on a giant movie theater screen). The creature design itself (caught in bits and pieces) is pretty damn creative. When I originally caught this film in the movie theater (all the way back in January 2008), the actual look of the monster thankfully hadn’t been given away in any of the promotional material. So I was surprised when I saw it. CLOVERFIELD did a solid job of getting my adrenaline pumping (even though I’ve seen it multiple times by now). The entire film plays out as a ride and should be enjoyed as such.

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CLOVERFIELD does falter in three key areas that are essential to making a good film. The characters aren’t given much personality. Though they were guiding me through this adventure, I couldn’t have cared less if they all died. The actors came off as cut-outs whose only notable trademark is that they were either yuppies or hipsters that just happened to get caught up in this otherworldly disaster. To make things a bit more tedious, the film plays out as a series of beats. Between hitting these moments, the pacing is tedious. Some stretches drag longer than others, but they all have the capacity to bore in some way. Hud’s frequent attempts at comedy relief are hit or miss. At times, a few of his quips got a laugh out of me. Other times, it was plain annoying. The frenetic camera work is essential to the found footage technique, but things get downright migraine-inducing at points.

Cloverfield 4

In the end, CLOVERFIELD works as a blast of big dumb fun. It’s pure B-movie entertainment that was supplied with a much higher budget than these kind of films usually have. The large-scale of the story is impressive, but the viewer also has to deal with hollow characters, dull patches, and frenetic camera work. It’s just a giant monster movie that happens to be told through a found-footage style. The mysterious and overblown marketing tactics wound up disappointing many viewers who were expecting something else. This one comes recommended, but be ready to put up with some noticeable flaws.

Grade: B-

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