“A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of Hell.”
– George Bernard Shaw, Misalliance (1910)
It goes without saying that I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. Maybe it’s the way “cheer” is forced down our throats like overfed ducks on their way to become foie gras, maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t had a full-time job in so long that there’s a limit on what I can get during “the busiest shopping season of the year,” or maybe it’s because the day begins what I think of as The Fortnight from Hell (Xmas, New Year’s, my birthday). Whatever it is, I’ll take any excuse I can get to be as far away from my family as possible.
With that in mind, here’s how I spent the 24th and 25th hopping from screen to screen to see what Hollywood’s dumped on us for the end of the shit cyclone that was 2017. I actually would have written this on the 26th, as I had lots thoughts on all of these flicks, but I decided to give it a little time and see if I could trim each review into an easily digestible bite. Here’s what I got.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me right back in. I’m not kidding: a couple weeks ago I was at a holiday party and said aloud that I was “done with Star Wars”. After mediocre fanfic double-punch that was The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the non-stop bad headlines (I can only read the headlines at this point) about the “Young Han Solo” flick, the reports that Disney is bullying cinema owners into showing this one, and the announcement that the director of this one is creating his own standalone trilogy to further oversaturate the market… it was just too much for me. I decide to cut off Star Wars the way I’d so easily cut off The Simpsons, social media, and cheddar gold fish bites from life so long ago.
But I’d just finished shopping and needed a distraction before I went back home to wrap. Take my money, Disney-monolith.
For what it’s worth, The Last Jedi has just a few things going against it and a lot of things going for it. On the down side, it still suffers from the Force Awakens and Rogue One problem of repeating specific notes and dialogue from the original trilogy, making it gloried fanfic-made-canon. (Granted, the prequels and comics fell into this trap regularly.) On the plus, it takes Rogue One’s single redeeming feature – it’s “grown up” quality – and runs with it. The Last Jedi is about maturing, especially on an emotional level. Maturity isn’t just a definitive physical trait like menopause or losing your baby teeth, it’s something that you should continue to do, even in old age. You’re supposed to never stop learning and trying to improve yourself, even it means destroying a past part of yourself.
Oddly enough, I thought of two hip-hop songs I really love: Common’s “Come Close” and Andre 3000’s “Dracula’s Wedding”. Both are from the points-of-view of men ready to start lifelong relationships with their women, but realize that doing so means the playa/pimp/ladies’ man has to die off. Common says this, but means it metaphorically; 3 Stacks makes and entire metaphorical horror story out of it.
Kylo Ren is all too eager to kill off his past before he’s had a chance to mature; Poe Dameron’s insistence that he knows everything gets people killed; Finn tries to run from his problems until he’s literally tasered into taking responsibility; and Rey is so eager to move to the next level that she can’t see the forest for the trees. They aren’t the only ones learning: Luke and Leia (the latter of whom has the single coolest moment early on in the film) are both wrinkled, weathered, and still figuring things out. Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) isn’t willing to take risks, but that’s because she’s a “bigger picture” person who thinks of how things play out in the long run (leading to the second-coolest moment of the film). All of this makes for compelling sci-fi.
There are a few dialogue and pacing beats that didn’t work for me (at 2 ½ hours + 20min. of trailers, this is a long sit), but The Last Jedi is thus far the best thing to come out of Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. I may not agree with the company’s business practices, but they have some talented artists on hand.
ALSO: if you want to read a fantastic (spoiler-filled) breakdown of the film’s sociological themes, read Bitter Gertrude’s great analysis right here.
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – GRADE: B+
If my expectations were low for The Last Jedi, they were practically subterranean for this Jumanji sequel (yes, it’s a sequel – or at least a spin-off, but it’s within the first one’s universe and continuity) when I saw it on Xmas day. Perhaps it was those low expectations that allowed me to enjoy it as much as I did, but I say the movie is pretty enjoyable on its own merits.
The stuff I didn’t like involved certain tropes that Hollywood seems unable to shake involving teens. It makes sense for the characters to become archetypes (and stereotypes) when they enter the game, but our four protagonists fall into easy-to-define categories before they play the game: the jock; the nerd; the outcast; the popular girl – they’re just one John Bender away from a full Breakfast Club (which they kinda-sorta get later on, albeit watered-down). What’s more, the outcast becoming the “pretty woman character” in the game compounds a problem seen in Grease and yes, The Breakfast Club. The fact that the pretty girl becomes a dude plays all the gender-swapping for laughs and skirts over any LGBTQ+ questions – which is too bad, considering her attraction to another character.
Still, I didn’t expect this flick to be David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which is the single greatest film to ever use video games as a premise. No, this is a flick aimed at kids and teens, with just enough to keep their parents – who saw the original film – interested. A talented cast, good action, and some genuinely funny jokes (Jack Black hasn’t been this funny since Tropic Thunder) make for an enjoyable holiday distraction at the multiplex. It has the goods to aim higher, but it still hits its low mark.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – GRADE: B-
Have you ever wondered what it would look like to watch a film where Abe Sapien fucks a mute woman during the height of the Red Scare? No? Well, it still exists, and I’ve seen it.
Given the critical reception to this film, I may be alone in the following opinion: I don’t think this is one of Guillermo del Toro’s masterpieces. That does not mean I hated it, just that the script doesn’t quite match the beautiful phantasmagoria created by its director. Whereas his other films – my favorites being The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth – allowed you to truly relish both the “real” and “fantasy” worlds presented, the script for this film is essentially a sped-up version of the plots from E.T, Splash!, and the old Bogart-Bacall film Dark Passage. Just with fishman-fucking. Even with a two-hour running time, the story feels rushed.
But what we do see and hear is great. Both del Toro’s script (co-written by Vanessa Taylor) and visuals favor a Tim Burton/David Lynch-esque view of post-WWII/pre-Vietnam America that’s just aching to reveal the ugliness Baby Boomers tried so hard to hide away. Racism, sexism, and homophobia all exist in this world. But the real horrors are saved for the Amazonian fishman who’s tortured before befriending the mute cleaning woman. The idea that a mute woman, a Black woman, and a Gay man (plus another whom I think is Jewish) bond with the perceived monster is a cliché unto itself, but it serves the purpose for the fairy tale del Toro is telling.
You see, they’re all on the outside of the world of White privilege exemplified by Michael Shannon’s cruel government agent. He has the Eisenhower ideal: wife, two kids, two-story suburban, and a fancy new car. He refers to the clearly-humanoid Amphibian Man as simply “The Asset”. He sees patriotism through a McCarthyist lense that wouldn’t be out of place with the White House of 2017; the one that believes in bullshit concepts like “White Genocide” and creates policy based on their campaign promises of racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, and so much anti-Semitism. Freaky fishman-sex is preferable to compliance with that sort of fascism.
Whatever flaws the script may have, it moves at a steady pace and is yet another example of Guillermo del Toro’s artistry as a film-maker. This is a great director who had the chance to do several “sure thing” projects – he would have directed The Hobbit as just a two-parter, and he was originally going to direct for Universal’s now-in-limbo “Dark Universe” series – but he chose to do his own thing. We’re all the better for it.
The Shape of Water – GRADE: B
Remember being in school and coming back from a long break, be it summer or winter? Remember that one kid who seemed to have just heard the joke you were tired of before the break even started, but he keeps telling it as if he’s the first one to ever say it?
That’s James Franco.
There are lots of things that could be explored about Tommy Wiseau and the creation of his so-bad-it’s-good cult film, The Room. Why does Wiseau hate the French so much that he refuses to let his characters say the word “fiancée”? Do copies still exist of the original theatrical and book versions of the story that Wiseau later adapted into the movie? Why the hell is it called The Room?
James Franco doesn’t give a shit about the answers to any of these questions. Instead, he thinks he’s the first one to mock Wiseau, and that he’s fucking hilarious at it. Don’t get me wrong: both the deluded Wiseau and his horribly misogynist movie are ripe for mockery. It’s just that Franco makes the exact same jokes that people have been making about both for the past 14 years. He doesn’t bring anything new to the table or offer any real insight to the notoriously elusive Wiseau. For Franco, it’s just “I’m doing my ‘Tommy Wiseau.’ Isn’t that hilarious?” It’s less Ed Wood hero-worship or Baadasssss! insight, and just one guy laughing at his own jokes
On the plus side, the film works best when shown entirely from the point-of-view of Wiseau’s friend, protégé, and Room co-star Greg Sistero (Dave Franco). Even in my dumbest days as a young actor, I couldn’t imagine myself falling in with a guy like Wiseau (and I almost did a play with a “genius” who later killed himself), but I recognized the feeling of being young, hungry, and eager to work. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the frustrations of making an independent film, especially when your director is treating everyone like shit. One of the film’s best scenes shows a heartless Wiseau bringing an actress to tears right before a sex scene because he finds her disgusting – this leads to a blow-up between director and crew that halts production. Had James Franco put aside his own ego and tried to make a film more in that vein, the result might have been great. But his ego wouldn’t let him do anything that interesting.
The definitive moments of The Disaster Artist both take place at the end: the first is a seven-or-so minute reel of scenes from The Room shown side-by-side with shot-for-shot remake footage from The Disaster Artist; it isn’t funny or it isn’t creative, it’s just Franco doing a Seltzerberg-esque recreation of something much more entertaining. The second is a post-credits scene where Franco-as-Wiseau meets the real Wiseau as another character. Again, not funny or creative.
Believe it or not, there are good things about The Disaster Artist, but you have to cherry-pick them from 90 minutes of James Franco’s self-congratulatory pretension. This is low-hanging fruit. The films above also failed to aim as high as they could, but at least they made the most of how high they got. If you want to see genuinely funny and insightful examination of Wiseau and his film, watch the 14-min. video below.
Tommy Wiseau is misogynist Eurotrash. James Franco somehow thinks we don’t already know this.
The Disaster Artist – GRADE: C-