In Retrospect – The Room (2003)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout January, The Big Picture has been running a series of articles on ‘bad but good’ movies. My focus is the ultimate ‘bad but good’ flick – Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

If cinema is an ‘escape’ from real life, then Tommy Wiseau’s cult calamity is a feature-length detachment from reality itself.

It’s unlikely there could ever be enough drugs in the world to fully comprehend a film that, for all intents and purposes, resembles something made by an alien trying to recreate about a hundred different types of movie junk spewed out across the celestial airwaves.

The cult infamy afforded what is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made has led to The Room gaining a second life that shows no signs of checking out. Indeed, the James Franco-led The Disaster Artist (based on Greg Sestero’s book about his experiences of working on the movie) has led to Wiseau’s work being embraced by the multiplex crowd.

The stories surrounding the film, and its enigmatic and eccentric writer/director are legion; not least of which the reported $6m budget that Wiseau apparently spent on the picture – a remarkable feat in so much as The Room resembles a movie made for about 0.5% of that cost.

The Room

The plot, what there is of it, centres on high-flying banker Johnny (Wiseau), who is due to marry the sociopathic Lisa (Juliette Danielle); however, Lisa has other ideas and pursues Johnny’s weak-willed best friend Mark (Sestero).

It’s difficult to know where to begin with The Room, although its mind-f***ing plot jumps, hilariously overwrought dialogue and insanely bad acting aren’t bad places to start.

The Room

We get not one, not two, but three veeeeery long sex scenes in the first 20 minutes, featuring plenty of Wiseau on display (in case you were wondering whether the film was a vanity project) alongside elaborate candelabra and water features that mysteriously disappear when the montages finally end. The R&B slow jams accompanying the rumpy-pumpy are comical enough, but the wildly OTT orgasmic sound effects are something else.

The film’s supporting cast are so wooden they make Steven Seagal look like Daniel Day-Lewis, none more so than the truly terrible Philip Haldiman as Denny, an orphan who Johnny has taken under his wing. When he’s not resembling a creepy serial killer we discover in one scene that Denny has a serious problem with drugs, a socially hard-hitting hot potato that gets forgotten about quicker than you can say “Oh, hi Denny!”.

Johnny may be cool with Denny’s later confession of love for Lisa, but our hero is distraught when his fiance truly starts messing him around. It’s difficult to know whether Wiseau is trying to paint his female lead as anything but evil incarnate, but needless to say the acting and dialogue aren’t selling it as much else.

When he’s not trying to channel Marlon Brando or James Dean (“You’re tearing me apaaaart, Lisa!”), Wiseau’s bizarre performance belongs on an American soap opera, pivoting from laughing inanity (oh boy, that laugh) to impersonations of chickens.

The Room

Just as Denny’s drug problems get cast aside in a heartbeat, so too does any definable logic. Conversations between characters that are emotive one moment veer off into goofiness the next, while scenes often look like they’ve been crowbarred in from other, equally terrible movies. As for all the spoons, who the hell knows what that’s about?

Having presumably watched too many life insurance adverts, Wiseau regularly features the guys playing catch, even having them all dressed up in tuxedos for some unfathomable reason. Likewise, the interplay between Lisa and her mother (Carolyn Minnott) spins on its head, throwing in dramatic revelations before moving on to something equally bonkers moments later.

The Room

That said, you never get the sense that any of the cast are winking at the audience, which only adds to the unintentional hilarity. Wiseau has spoken often of how he considers the film a black comedy, although this is no doubt a defence mechanism of a someone whose real ambition was to craft a dramatic chamber piece that Tennessee Williams would have been proud of.

Are there movies as bad as The Room? Most definitely yes. But whilst those flicks can often be made with a cynical heart, Wiseau’s unforgettable debut is the product of genuine artistic aspiration – however misguided.

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Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s been over three years since Rian Johnson reacted to having been announced as the director of Star Wars‘ eighth episode with a tweet quoting The Right Stuff in which Scott Glenn’s astronaut Alan Shepard nervously declares: “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f*** up.”

In the intervening period between then and now we’ve seen the Star Wars saga emerge from the dark side of Episodes I-III to once again become a force for good in the galaxy, with J.J. Abrams’ hugely entertaining The Force Awakens and last year’s action-packed Rogue One.

Star Wars The Last Jedi PosterThat three-year wait is finally over for Johnson and the result should not only put to rest any lingering doubt he may have had, but also gives this beloved space opera its most daring and emotionally satisfying chapter since the Empire struck back.

The Last Jedi picks up pretty much where The Force Awakens finished off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) having travelled to a far-flung part of the galaxy to convince an eremite Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight against the First Order. The rag-tag Resistance, led by General Organa (Carrie Fisher) is struggling to stay one step ahead of the enemy, while the unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seemingly remains in thrall to the mysterious and all-powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Star Wars The Last JediAbrams faced criticism in some quarters for playing it too safe when he gave us The Force Awakens; however, without the foundations set in place by Episode VII, Johnson would never have been able to play so gleefully in the sandbox created for him. That said, it’s unlikely anyone expected he would empty the contents of that sandbox all over the place and, to paraphrase Luke, give us a Star Wars film that “is not going to go the way you think”.

Such leftfield moments are scattered throughout the film, from Luke’s unexpected reaction to having been presented his old lightsabre by Rey, to a dramatic encounter involving Snoke, Rey and Ren that harks back to Return Of The Jedi… until it doesn’t.

Johnson’s smart and generous script is rich in the saga’s long history, revisiting key moments from the original trilogy and giving them a surprising and often humourous spin.

Star Wars The Last JediStar Wars has never been short of memorable characters, but they have often not been best served by emotionally mature dialogue. Johnson clearly had other ideas, though and never lets us forget these are people first who are flawed and impulsive and do what they think is best. The history of past actions weighs heavily, while the uncertainty of what comes next has never been more palpable.

Working on a canvas far larger than he’s previously been used to, Johnson’s confidence with the material is evident, with numerous eye-catching shots (a silent explosion involving multiple ships is pure shock and awe) and a series of well-staged and visually arresting set pieces – in particular a sequence on the planet Crait that uses white and red imagery to startling effect (red is a common colour throughout).

With such a large cast it’s perhaps not surprising that some characters fade in to the background and that certainly applies to Chewbacca, who at least finds companionship with some cute, puffin-like Porgs. Likewise, Finn (John Boyega) doesn’t get as satisfying an arc as he had last time around, although his interplay with the terrific Kelly Marie Chan as Rose is nicely handled.

Star Wars The Last JediHamill, thankfully given plenty more to do than in The Force Awakens (which wouldn’t have been hard), is excellent and offers us a side of Luke that’s a galaxy away from the naive, golly gosh farm boy we met all those years ago. Equally great is Ridley, who makes us think twice at one point about where she could be headed, and Driver, who has fully settled in to what is this new trilogy’s most complex role and delivers a performance that sees him break free of the past while still holding on to some of his more immature impulses.

Johnson has given us a Star Wars movie that, in its own way, reflects some of the chaos and doubt that courses through today’s global landscape. The Last Jedi is daring, spectacular cinema that opens up the universe to wondrous new possibilities.

Review – Justice League

The leap forward taken by the DC Extended Universe courtesy of this summer’s refreshingly charming Wonder Woman has sadly U-turned faster than a speeding bullet.

Justice League PosterWhile Marvel hasn’t perfected the superhero genre, with often underwhelming villains and a penchant for slam-bang finales that can feel overly familiar, it does boast a well-drawn gallery of central and supporting characters and plenty of crisp dialogue.

By playing the long game, it has also taken the time to enable audiences to grow comfortable with its slate of superheroes before throwing them together in a giant Marvel mash-up.

In a desperate effort to play catch up, the DCEU has, on the other hand, relied upon moviegoers’ love of Batman, Superman and, most recently, Wonder Woman to quickly sell them on the idea of a team-up involving several characters who, hitherto had only received a fleeting glimpse via Lex Luthor’s laptop in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Justice League hasn’t entirely lit up the box office, while one would hope the muddled and deeply uncertain tone of the movie should provide definitive proof to Warner Bros that the direction the franchise is being taken on by Zack Snyder simply isn’t working.

The post-Batman vs Superman studio panic was evident in the lamentable Suicide Squad, which tried to crowbar humour in to what had obviously started out as a Snyder-aping ‘dark and gritty’ action-fest.

Justice LeagueThe same can no doubt be said for Justice League. The insistence by cast and crew that this was always going to be a far lighter affair than Batman vs Superman smacks of “the lady doth protest too much”. Besides, what jocularity there is falls mostly into the lap of Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen, who rattles off lines as fast as his Flash alter-ego can handle, leaving the audience as little time as possible to absorb the fact that 99% of them simply aren’t amusing.

Jason Momoa may look the part as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, but he’s reduced to doing little more than grunting and being flung around the place (one confrontation with a phalanx of baddies is lifted straight from The Return Of The King). The prospects for a standalone movie doesn’t look promising.

One character who would benefit from more screen time is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (aka Victor Stone), easily the most compelling of the new characters. With a tragic back story that piques the interest, Fisher sells Victor’s frustration and sadness, as well as his desire to do something good.

Of the returning comic book comrades, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman once again stands head and shoulders above the rest, having become DCEU’s golden girl following the huge critical and commercial success of her debut solo outing this summer.

Justice LeagueWonder Woman‘s focus on luminous positivity in the face of the great darkness of World War One, as well as the ease in which its central team play off each other stands out even more when its lead character stars in something as flat-footed as this. It’s also fair to say that film’s director Patty Jenkins wouldn’t have focused her camera on the parts of Gadot’s body Snyder regualrly chooses to stray on.

Ben Affleck, meanwhile, looks like a man who’s realised he’s sleepwalked in to another Pearl Harbor as he leads the league in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death against a nondescript CGI villain called Steppenwolf who, surprise, is hell-bent on conquering the Earth.

The wildly unbalanced tone of the film can perhaps be explained by the fact that Snyder stepped away towards the end of filming and handed the reigns to Avengers head honcho Jos Whedon following a family tragedy. However, one suspects Whedon didn’t contribute as much as some may suggest, meaning the blame for Justice League‘s shortcomings must ultimately fall upon its original director.

The path ahead for the DCEU is therefore clear – a fresh vision is needed in order for this particular universe to avoid imploding in on itself.

Four Frames – National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout July, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘journeys’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from the Chevy Chase-starring road trip comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Many of us will no doubt recall the times we spent as a kid sat in the back of a hot car watching our parents squabble over which way to go on the way to a summer family holiday.

We can therefore recognise, at least in part, the pain and suffering endured by the Griswolds in the name of ‘fun’ as they hit the road for a 2,408-mile trip from Chicago to the hallowed Walley World in California.

The cross-country road trip taken by the manic Clark (Chevy Chase), his long-suffering wife Ellen (Beverley D’Angelo) and teenage children Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) takes on a Sisyphean struggle as they haplessly veer towards one self-destructive set piece after another.

A screwball comedy it may be, but director Harold Ramis and writer John Hughes also inject a little subversiveness into proceedings. With Lindsey Buckingham’s relentlessly upbeat Holiday Road ringing in our ears, the opening credits are a flip book of picture postcards showing off every corner of the U.S. It paints the sort of all-American summer vacation sold by people like Clark, an advertising executive who has drunk the Kool-Aid and can’t wait to witness first hand such unforgettable sights as the “second largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth” with his family.

The laughably awful station wagon (a vehicle created specifically for the movie) that ferries the Griswolds to hell and back puts the lampoon into National Lampoon. In addition, the wildly over-the-top illustrated poster of a buffed-up Chase draped by a scantily clad D’Angelo and Sports Illustrated cover girl Christie Brinkley (who plays a Ferrari-driving temptress) not only amps up the film’s shameless ridiculousness, but also merrily sends up Reagan-era patriotism.

Chase was among the first of the Saturday Night Live cast members who, along with Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi (until his premature death in 1982) broke out of the NBC sketch show and became one of the biggest stars in the ’80s.

Essentially a bunch of sketches tied to the narrative thread of the road trip to end all road trips (until they all did it again in National Lampoon’s European Vacation two years later), Vacation provided Chase with the perfect comedy vehicle.

Almost 35 years on, some of the jokes are best left in the past; in particular a cringeworthy sequence set in the seedy streets of St Louis where Clark and co are lost and ask a group of black pimps and vandals for directions back to the expressway – losing their hub caps in the process (Rusty wonders “if these guys know The Commodores” just to ratchet up the racial stereotyping).

Others remain darkly hilarious, including the moment when Clark realises the dog they’ve been looking is no longer tied to the back of the car and the scene in which the family tie the recently deceased Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) to the roof wrapped in tarpaulin.

However, the highlight remains Clark’s meltdown in front of his family in which he excoriates them for being “f**ked in the head” at wanting to go home after all they’ve been through, adding: “This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much f**king fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes!”

Hughes has a penchant for memorable expletive-laden monologues (the can of whoopass opened up by Steve Martin towards a car rental employee in 1987’s Planes, Trains And Automobiles is equally great) and Chase savours every moment, saving the best for last as the wild-eyed Clark warns his son “Don’t touch!”

The fates have one last kick in the shins for the Griswolds when they finally make it to Walley World, pushing Clark off the deep end and leading to a finale that’s as uplifting as it is unnerving and unlikely.

The less said about the increasingly painful and derivative sequels the better, but National Lampoon’s Vacation remains a laugh-out-loud skewering of the middle class American dream.

Review – Churchill

Thought Winston Churchill was behind the greatest gamble of the Second World War? Think again, according to this latest film centred on the iconic British leader.

Much like Shakespeare’s King Lear, the role of Churchill is a coveted one among thesps of a certain age and has been attempted more than a few times over the years on big and small screen alke.

Churchill PosterGary Oldman will be the latest to give the ‘victory’ sign when he stars in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour later this year, but getting there first is Brian Cox, who gained considerable weight and shaved his head to achieve the physical embodiment of the former British Prime Minister. However, it is the way he humanises a man still regarded as one of the United Kingdom’s greatest figures that has won him particular acclaim.

Cox has spoken of the Shakespearean element to playing Churchill, and this is no more personified than in the Bard’s Lear, the great leader who is gradually sidelined whilst howling against a storm he no longer has control over.

ChurchillSet in the final days and hours leading up to Operation Overlord, otherwise known as D-Day on 6 June 1944, the film portrays Churchill as a man haunted by the slaughter that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of men at Gallipoli almost 30 years earlier and convinced the Allied invasion of France will be equally catastrophic.

Although the serving Prime Minster and Minister of Defence, Winston finds that his protestations count for nothing in the face of the united front taken by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (Tony Slattery), British Army Commander Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and Field Marshall Alan Brooke (Danny Webb).

His reduced status as little more than a figurehead is a bitter pill to swallow for Churchill, whose tirades and self-pitying fail to impress his devoted, but increasingly frustrated wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), while even his trusted friend King George VI (James Purefoy) must talk him out of a misguided plan to be at the frontline of the Normandy landings.

ChurchillThere’s no doubt the angle taken by the film in chronicling the lead-up to one of the defining events of the 20th century is an interesting one, based as it is on the diaries of Brooke as well as other historical sources. It’s a shame therefore that Alex von Tunzelmann’s one-note script and Jonathan Teplitzky’s stagy direction fail to get away from the fact that Churchill would have worked better on television rather than in cinemas.

In case we hadn’t absorbed the message that the Prime Minister was against Overlord, the film, like a broken record, continuously has Churchill imploring Eisenhower, Montgomery and anyone else who’ll listen not to “make the same mistakes as before”. Cox raises his game to play a role he’s reportedly wished to portray for years, while Richardson is equally fantastic (the supporting cast do their best with limited material); however, neither are served by a script that stretches itself to breaking point to fill 90 minutes.

ChurchillThere are some nice moments here and there; in particular a beautifully played scene between Cox and Purefoy in which the King gently breaks his friend’s heart in an effort to save Churchill from himself. The crushing weight on the shoulders of Einsenhower and his senior military staff as they weigh up a decision that will ultimately decide the fate of the war is also effectively handled – lest we forget that D-Day was a leap into the unknown with potentially devastating consequences.

Excellent performances, however, cannot ultimately save Churchill from being an also ran in the long history of films involving one of history’s Great Britons.