Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animated picture is charming and inventive. Not as compelling or brisk as The Fantastic Mr. Fox (there are moments when the wizardry is doing too much of the heavy lifting), but still, very winning.
This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes. It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic. Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing. His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders. There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor. So, it’s fine, but forgettable.
One reviewer remarks, “It’s a provocative, serious, ridiculous, screwy concoction about whiteface, cultural code-switching, African-American identities and twisted new forms of wage slavery, beyond previously known ethical limits.” Another: “An absurdist, startlingly original Molotov cocktail through the pane glass window of Hollywood, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a riot, the year’s craziest comedy and the most demented call to arms in memory.” A third, perhaps inevitably: “An impassioned, chaotically accurate response to dark and troubling times.”
Thankfully, Boots Riley’s debut film bears little resemblance to these painfully misguided and rote intonations, beyond being original and absurdist. Rather, the story of an upwardly mobile telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield of Atlanta, who is just the right amount of bewildered and decent yet persuadable) who loses his way and uncovers the most insane corporate skullduggery since “Soylent Green is people!” is playful, trippy, inventive, and surreal with a few brutally caustic comic bits thrown in for good measure. It’s decidedly less political than advertised by the critics, and when it is political, the message is so broad and zany, you could affix it to just about any ideology you wanted.
It was mind-blowing to learn that it is the first movie for writer-director Riley, who crams so much visual creativity into the flick it eventually ends in an exhausted mess. The picture is original in most parts, but it owes a great deal to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. It’s also a tad reminiscent of wacky Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, and Scorsese’s After Hours. Not for everyone, certainly not required to be seen in a theater, but an absolute treat when the price gets right.
Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win. We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer). The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption. This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December. Here are the other nine:
A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)
It’s a Wonderful Life
A Christmas Story
The Nightmare Before Christmas
This is what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Consistently clever, mainly for young people but with crossover to adults, and devoid of all the dreary seriousness of Gotham city and world politics and ethical dilemmas for people dressed up for Mardis Gras. Add the fact that the characters are almost impossible not to enjoy, the CGI is nifty rather than a blaring assault, and there are some really funny bits. And the finale is a blast (rather than a dark, dull, crashing snorefest ala’ Wonder Woman). The film also has a proper villain, the sleek, sultry, campy goddess of death Cate Blanchett.
Quintessential popcorn flick.
Steven Soderbergh is a more-than competent director with some solid films (Contagion, Traffic, King of the Hill, two of the three Oceans movies), some overpraised ones (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich), a few minor masterpieces (The Limey, Out of Sight) and some super duds (The Underneath, Solaris, The Informant, The Good German). A few years back, he announced his retirement, leaving as his last directorial effort the minor, pedestrian Behind the Candelabra, the definitive Liberace movie literally no one was waiting for. Soderbergh had concluded, “I just don’t think movies matter as much any more, culturally”, and it showed.
I presume Soderbergh recognized that he didn’t want to go out on a pop fly, and that his exit was a little whiny (“The worst development in film-making – particularly in the last five years – is how badly directors are treated” he huffed), so he’s gotten back into the game, directing a few TV series, and, returning to the big screen with Logan Lucky.
Unfortunately, if there was ever a movie that didn’t matter, culturally or otherwise, Logan Lucky is it, a limp re-make of Soderbergh’s Oceans flicks, sans the charm of Clooney, Pitt and gang. It also lacks the fun plotting of the casino heists and the Vegas glitz. Instead, we get Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig playing at Boss Hog accents; a big score (at the Charlotte Speedway) that is plodding and lazy; and dull West Virginia and Charlotte standing in for the Bellagio fountains.
Instantly forgettable and in at least one way (using Seth McFarlane as a Brit with a worse accent than Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies) unforgivable.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s picture is assured, ingenious, and alternatively, hilarious and moving. A coming-of-age story that touches on the themes of leaving home and the mother-daughter relationship is not exactly original, but in Gerwig’s hands, it is fresh. Lady Bird (Saiorse Ronan of last year’s beautiful Brooklyn) is a Catholic school senior in Sacramento navigating her college choices, academic ennui, sexual inexperience, insecurity, and her family’s economic frailty, all while negotiating an increasingly strained relationship with her passive-aggressive (and sometimes, aggressive-aggressive) mother (Laurie Metcalf).
Gerwig stitches a narrative together with brisk and evocative vignettes, and her characters carry the nuance and surprise of real people. Lady Bird’s reach for popularity and desire for something beyond what she deems the stodgy and suffocating Sacramento might normally make her empathetic, but she is of her age, which means selfish and even cruel, in her ambition. This harsh light prevents the film from becoming maudlin. She’s a real girl and her world feels authentic. I watched the film with my wife and daughter, and their knowing glances and nonverbal communication throughout certified the truth of its nature.
I was reminded of different films at different times while watching Lady Bird. Gerwig’s command of pace and sharp timing evokes Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, shorn of his mannered style. Her strong portrayal of the bond of family and place also brought to mind last years’ incredibly under appreciated 20th Century Women. Finally, the mother-daughter dynamic on the eve of separation made me think of Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said.
I don’t mean to convey that Gerwig’s picture is derivative, only exceedingly accomplished. These are great pictures for purposes of comparison.
This is one of the best of the year, and I expect nominations for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. At a time when Hollywood may very well want to go with films that are smaller and more pure, keep this one in mind when filling out your Oscar ballot.