2017 Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Before The Room became a midnight sensation, Greg Sestero was one of many in an acting class dreaming of "making it".  Not all paths to the top are filled with inspired success, and Greg's journey meets its maker in the form of the perpetually greasy, eternally enthusiastic, and ethnically questionable Tommy Wiseau.  James Franco directs The Disaster Artist, with the screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and stars Dave Franco and James Franco.

The first oddity of James Franco's The Disaster Artist comes right at the end.  In split-screen, we watch how James' recreation stacks up against the bizarre-to-the-point-of-untouchable moments in Tommy Wiseau's The Room.  The weirdness comes from James' technically accurate reflections, not perfectly accurate as the odd cadence of Wiseau's film can't be intentionally recreated.  What few synapses that had the urge to fire moved my fingers to write, "Why is this?" in my notes before realizing I had spent the better part of an hour and a half writing only one other note "Dave Franco's getting into this."

My lack of notes in preparation for writing this review of The Disaster Artist might strike some of you as inattention from my part but - let me assure you - aside from that one burst of passion from Dave there was not a single moment of note in The Disaster Artist.  I might be the perfectly wrong person for this film as I've seen The Room more than once (once was enough but friends gotta introduce it to friends and there I was) and read Greg Sestero's entertaining account of The Room's making.  The trick to enduring The Room more than once is not watching it and occupying yourself during the many go-nowhere moments until the staggeringly terrible bits come up.  Those moments ("You're tearing me apart", complimenting a dog, etc.) expose Wiseau's psyche so nakedly that we tend to gloss over how boring the rest of The Room is.


Nioh (2017)

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Final Fantasy XV fans take note - Nioh was in development in some form or another since 2004 and managed to deliver a game that was not a rambling, incoherent, passive-aggressive nightmare to play.  The key words there are "to play", Nioh has its fair share of storytelling problems that stem from a lack of faith in the gameplay itself being good enough to tell a story.  I'd say that stems from its long development, but there are so many cutscene, character design, and environmental choices that culled from tighter games that add to Nioh's sometimes bloated feel instead of providing texture.

Nioh's biggest problem is there's too damn much going on and not enough narrative focus to make the storytelling worthwhile.  The beginning and ends of many levels feature cutscenes that recall the classic NES Ninja Gaiden.  But Nioh's cutscenes are bland affairs, filled with wide shots of hastily introduced characters muttering something about the historical conflict in Japan and treating the player-character - William - mostly as an afterthought.  Ninja Gaiden's cutscenes were economic perfection, using tight closeups of Ryu's face to highlight the intensity of his journey and adding a layer of surprise when unknown figures entered or exited the frame.  Cutscene Ryu is just as determined as his tightly controlled platforming presentation, but William's surgical caution and the player's necessary observation of enemy patterns in the game bear little resemblance to the mostly mute presence cutscene William projects.

While the cutscene storytelling is unengaging, the environmental storytelling is a dull hodgepodge of influences. The levels themselves are often well thought out, the highlight a battle through a labyrinthine ninja training facility that flips in on itself while William works his way to the pipe smoking toad in command.  Dark Souls comparisons are tired, yet Nioh earns a mild nod with the completely unnecessary shortcuts built into the maps.  There's not enough sprawl in the paths William can take to suggest a web of people in the background working together to make the land their own, like when the unexpected environmental loops become apparent in the Dark Souls games.  Worse, the disconnected feeling is amplified by a world map where menus upon menus for level selection remove even more focus from William's journey, a similar problem I had with the otherwise excellent God Hand.


Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition (2017)

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Planescape: Torment (just P:T moving forward) was a "bucket list" videogame for me.  A former friend of mine introduced me to P:T back in 2003, a couple years after I got into other CRPG titles like Fallout and Baldur's Gate.  He handed the discs over with the promise that P:T was the greatest role-playing game of all time which, considering my love for the genre, placed some mighty expectations on it.

Playing P:T was, no joke, total agony.  The overwhelming grey, brown, and dingy oranges of the starting areas made it difficult to figure out where my characters were - a predicament not helped by primary PC The Nameless One's grey skin and first companion Morte being a tiny floating skull.  My mom used to warn me playing videogames for too long would give me a headache and that came to fruition squinting my way through P:T's awful aesthetic.  I tried playing P:T three more times before the Enhanced Edition came out, the second time with my then-friend guiding me to try and highlight the appeal, a third time after that, and a fourth several years later when P:T appeared on Good Old Games.


Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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1973, where women's lib is a joke on the tongues of sportscasters while women like Billie Jean King struggle to make it a reality.  When the opportunity comes for Billie Jean to play tennis against Bobby Riggs, one the number one player in the world for several years, there's more than publicity at stake.  Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct Battle of the Sexes, with the screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy, and stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

Back at Illinois State University, I took an elective theater class where my professor made the uncontested claim that a man in a dress is always funny.  It went uncontested because, at the time, I didn't think too hard about the various social and cultural forces that went into the joke of a man in a dress.  Cut to about eight years later, I'm watching my rental of Battle of the Sexes, and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is doing a photo shoot of him in a pink Little Bo-Peep dress complete with sheep.  Bobby is treating his upcoming match with Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) like a joke, while she's training her heart out.

There's the problem with taking "man in a dress" at comedic face value.  We aren't so enlightened that what are deadly serious gender issues for one person can be easily dismissed for the next.  Representation alone isn't enough.  Billie Jean didn't need to just play against Bobby Riggs, she needed to win.  She didn't need to just win against Bobby Riggs, she needed to maintain a tough if affable public face while doing so.  She didn't need to just keep a great public image, she needed to ensure her private life wasn't reflected negatively in the press.  On and on the pressures mounted, affecting every corner of her life, and she never broke.


Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Roman J. Israel, Esq., legal genius, struggles to live up to his ideals in a world dedicated to keeping him quiet.  After a medical tragedy takes out his partner, Roman is left with the prospect of unemployment or selling out his principles to stay alive.  Dan Gilroy wrote the screenplay for and directs Roman J. Israel, Esq., and stars Denzel Washington.

Denzel Washington and writer/director Dan Gilroy have one hell of a character on their hands with Roman J. Israel, Esq.  The title's awkward, but so's the man, and he'll repeat his full name enough times to prove he's going to command respect no matter the situation.  With his baggy suits, headphones, afro, and darkened apartment adorned with posters of idols raging from Angela Davis to Malcolm X, he feels like a man out of time.  Moments alone with Roman are when Washington and Gilroy are at their best, watching a man frozen in his ways but still hopeful he can bring some lasting good to the world.

In many ways, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a 180 turn away from the propulsive darkness of Nightcrawler (which was my favorite film of 2014).  Where Nightcrawler got inside the mind of a "by any means necessary" virulent capitalist, Roman J. Israel, Esq. takes the subtle route of showing how forced respectability compresses progress "by any means necessary" into claustrophobic spaces with no room to grow. Nightcrawler's Lou revels in the darkness while Roman struggles to stay in the light.  Gilroy's dedication to critiquing the status quo is patient this time around, but he doesn't have a compelling story to match the writing of this spectacular character.