The 2003 movie "The Room" ranks high among the worst movies ever made, achieving cult status for its nonsensical story, appalling production values, and abysmal acting. So why not make a film about its writer, director and star Tommy Wiseau and his dogmatic, blinkered vision? Enter director and star James Franco who does exactly that in "The Disaster Artist."  

Based on Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell's book, the story begins in July 1998 San Francisco in an acting class as Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau meet. In short order, they've moved to Tommy's apartment in Los Angeles where both pursue their star-struck dreams. As Greg's star rises, Tommy's sinks; but, a loyal friend, Greg supports Tommy in achieving "my vision," as he defines it. One extraordinary aspect of "The Disaster Artist" is its balancing act. We're never blind to the unhinged, delusional elements of Tommy's film or to his insensitive self-indulgent narcissism, though I read his bullying has been toned down. And yet Franco manages to keep Tommy both incredibly funny and sympathetic, a delicate handling of a difficult person. 

Given James Franco's previous work and reputation for following his unique muse, he (dare I say logically) assumes the mantel and gives his own inspired performance as Tommy Wiseau. The fearless Franco adopts Wiseau's persona, flawlessly imitating him. The level of perfection he achieves becomes clear during the closing credits when a split screen runs several scenes from "The Room" next to those in "The Disaster Artist," showcasing the uncanny accuracy. As a bonus, at the preview screening here, viewers said the lines along with the actors, a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" type tribute that may build with exhibition.

As Greg Sestero, Dave Franco has a fresh, American boy appeal that nicely highlights the contrast between him and Tommy: open vs. guarded, honest vs. deceptive, successful vs. struggling. Other supporting cast are equally good: Jacki Weaver, Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow, and especially Seth Rogan as the puzzled, flummoxed script supervisor of "The Room." And watch for cameos by Sestero, Wiseau, and Bryan Cranston. 

Some familiarity with "The Room" certainly enhances the humor here, but "The Disaster Artist" delivers its own inspired, often hysterical comedy. Check local listings including for some late night screenings of "The Room". 

 

Woody Allen's latest film joins the other wonders of the season, but "Wonder" is wonder-full, as is "Wonderstruck." "Wonder Wheel" is not so wonderful as woeful. It refuses to find a focus, almost as if it's been on its own Ferris wheel and is dizzy with misdirection and indecision.

Allen wrote a story about a carousel operator at Coney Island in the Fifties. Humpty is married to Ginny, a waitress. Humpty's daughter Carolina by another wife appears on Coney Island, all dewy and bosomy, but she has married a gangster and the mob is after her. Just what Ginny needs, in addition to a little pyromaniac son from another husband. 

Allen sets up the lifeguard to tell the story, an interested other. Mickey is first interested in the older woman and then becomes interested in the younger woman, and still he tells the story as if he's objective, up there almost omniscient on the lifeguard's stand at the ocean's edge.

Allen's story has the makings of melodrama, the kind found in a True Confessions magazine that no woman would have been reading in public on on that beach in the Fifties. To turn melodrama into a film watchable for two hours in the early 21st century would challenge any director --  it's a hard sub-genre to sustain unless it's being ridiculed. And, even then, who wants to listen to the Susan Hayward-screeching or watch the Richard Conte-posturing today even as a joke?

Kate Winslet is the headache-riddled screecher in "Wonder Wheel" and Jim Belushi is the undershirted posturer. Juno Temple is the un-ingenue, and Justin Timberlake is the lifeguard. They're all very trying. 

The real winner in "Wonder Wheel" is Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. Rooms made red by the neon of the Ferris wheel in the honkey-tonk fairyland of Coney Island provide something satanic to look at.

Psychiatrists will be thrilled with "Thelma," even shrinks with 5¢ scrawled over their comic strip shingles. "Thelma" reveals itself as if in therapy sessions. Some of those meetings between client and doctor concern the past; some, the present, but all concern the person lying hopefully, sexually on that chaise.

Any movie that begins with a man and a child shuffling across a frozen body of water, only to look down to see a child below the ice, is a film set in the head. When the next scene shows a man (same one on the ice? don't know yet) aiming a gun at a girl (same one on the ice? dunno), the movie that follows is going to have serious issues. "Thelma" does. It is intriguing and infuriating, insightful and insane.

Thelma is a young student, off in the big city, studying. She finds a seat in a cavernous reading hall, the camera overhead to show its size and rat-mazeness. Thelma seats herself next to another lovely young student. Of a sudden, Thelma begins to shake in seizure. Subsequent tests reveal nothing.

The next time Thelma sees Anja, she seizes again. The two women are drawn to one another, but Thelma has fearful parents who control her. Thelma, however, has the ability to control them, a Carrie-like quality of the mind. Needless to say, snakes and fires and burning water also play their parts as Thelma explores her subconscious.

Elie Harboe portrays multi-layered Thelma with precision, and she's paired well with Kaya Wilkins as Anja. Director Joachim Trier, a Danish-born Norwegian, controls the action with surface serenity, contrasted with scenes like the terrifying one in the pool and the sensual ones of lovers kissing. Trier wrote the script with Eskil Vogt with an eye toward the fevered psychological discussions that must follow.

 

So what does your trusty film critic know? As I sat in the theater waiting for "Coco" to start, I observed the children around me. They were chattering, whining, mewling, and reporting. They were eating loudly, running rompingly, demanding attention. "What," I thought uncharitably, "are they doing here? What will they understand of 'Coco.'"

The latest Pixar film began. And a hush fell over the crowd. A hush unaltered for nearly two hours as mind-boggling history and myth were set forth in exposition, as great banners of sound swirled about, as colors insisted on being absorbed. And, still, the children sat dumbfounded, absorbed like those colors.

So what did they understand of the culture of Mexico and its celebration of the Day of the Dead, or All Souls' Day? Did they relate it to All Hallows' Eve or All Saints' Day or their own deaths? Did they, no matter their age, understand the story, written by Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz, among others, and convoluted as a morning glory vine? Did they identify with the protagonist, a boy named Miguel. His family of shoemakers has banned music even though this boy hears and plays it in this world and the next. In his search for his musical roots, Miguel encounters unscary skeletons, many dancing or plinking guitars. What child who barely gets what "tia" means, understood these ancestors? And yet, the audience  did not even whisper into its own silence.

The children piped asked no questions, not even about Pixar's vaunted adherence to culture and history, well, except for leaving native-born Indians out of the Mexican mix. They listened to the voice work of Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel and of Gael Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt. They followed the finely detailed animation, especially the amazing finger work of guitarists. They behaved, entertained by it all -- the story and the songs. Me? Not so much.

Something -- memories of esprit de corps, desperation, loneliness -- draws Doc Shepherd to find his old Marine buddies on the Internet. He has an agenda: he wants them to go with him to bury his son, also a Marine but killed in another war. Doc finds Sal, running a failing bar.

Then Doc directs Sal to church because that's where Richard is preaching the Word. It's the last thing either Doc or Sal expected of a buddy who drank and cursed and smoked weed through the Viet Nam war. The three old friends start out on this journey in 2003, a journey that ends beside a grave.

The story of that journey was scripted by the director of Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, and by Darryl Ponicsan, known mostly for his early military works, The Last Detail and Cinderella Liberty. The two men march the three Marines on a trip through the past, through bureaucracy, through manhood and aging. They traipse heavily over lies and secrets.

The most mournful of the trio is Doc, who has also recently buried his wife. As played by Steve Carell, Doc personifies the sad, lost man. Bryan Cranston plays the player, the drunk, the joker, and Laurence Fishburne is the preacher-man, remorseful and upright but provokable to the past. Each man lives inside his role and wears it well, but each could easily have played either of the other two roles. Cicely Tyson's cameo is poignant.

Last Flag Flying is not a film about camera angles or about light and shadow, although Linklater directs those aspects as befits his reputation from his "Before" series. It is a literate film about character and plot, about the creases of time and the pressure of paths, some more wayward than others. Last Flag Flying provides broad brush strokes and nuances and rewards with every line, whether comic or tragic.

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