There exists an adoring cult around an abysmal 2003 film called “The Room.” It was written by, directed by, financed by and starred Tommy Wiseau, a millionaire about whom no one really knew anything, as he seemed a complete fabrication from the get-go. “The Disaster Artist,” directed by and starring James Franco, is a serio-comic homage to that movie, and quite a wonder in itself. Based on a book by Greg Sestero (also a co-star), the film lovingly recreates the journey of how Wiseau and Sestero met (in acting class, both of them awful but Wiseau truly dreadful), shared their dreams, headed to Hollywood and, against all odds, actually made and released a film (that showed in one theater, complete with red carpet and klieg lights on opening night). The fact that it’s now one of those midnight screening favorites, where an entire audience recites the lines along with the onscreen characters, must be a dream come true for Wiseau.
It’s James Franco’s directing and—indeed—impersonation of Wiseau that makes the entire thing work. He completely loses himself in the character and we wince at his outrageousness and shake our heads at the phenomenon that is Wiseau’s universe-sized ego. “The Disaster Artist” is helped immensely by the casting of Franco’s brother Dave as Greg; their onscreen connection works wonderfully. I confess that I couldn’t imagine I would like this film, as its source is so perfectly appalling, but I was won over pretty much at the outset. Do go, and be sure to stay for the credits—they will blow you away.
“The Shape of Water” may be my favorite film of 2017, and there were a lot of terrific films. Its writer/director, Guillermo del Toro, is known for his fascination with light and dark, terror and redemption, and the concept of the underdog winning the day. In previous films based on fairy tales and comic books, such as the brilliant “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” his gifts were on display. But this, finally, is the Mexico-born filmmaker’s masterpiece. Set in the early 1960s in Baltimore, it’s the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a janitor at a military research center. We follow her acts of kindness toward an aging gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her bond with a loyal friend from work (Octavia Spencer), her putting up with casual abuse from her employers and finally her increasingly intimate interactions with a creature known as The Asset. A man-beast who lives in water (and, according to del Toro, inspired by the monster in 1954’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon”), The Asset was captured in the jungles of the Amazon, and was considered by the natives there as a god. In this country, which was then engaged in the Cold War against the USSR, he was thought to be a possible weapon against our enemy and is used as a research subject, like a rat in a cage.
I don’t like reviews that give the whole plot away, so suffice it to say that this is a gorgeous, sensual film, a tale filled with kindness and evil and the battle between the two. Be sure to suspend disbelief at the door.
The cast is simply outstanding, from Hawkins’ stellar work to Jenkins’ heart-tugging characterization to Michael Shannon’s cruel military man to Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist and possible spy, and to, finally, Doug Jones as the creature: part animal, part man and all mythic. Kudos go to Alexandre Desplat’s score, Dan Lausten’s cinematography and Guillermo del Toro for bringing us this work of genius that is a fable, a horror film and love story, rolled into one glorious experience.