Posts tagged ‘Hollywood’

January 3, 2019

#145) “The Disaster Artist”: book vs. movie

Everyone loves a good train wreck, and train wrecks don’t come much bigger than “The Room”, a 2003 film that has often been cited as the worst movie ever made.

That said, train wrecks aren’t always created equal or, more accurately, aren’t always remembered equally. Fifteen years after its release, “The Room” enjoys a cult following and celebrity status. Like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” it is often given midnight screenings with audience participation; like Ed Wood, director/star/writer Tommy Wiseau has become a cult figure who is laughed both at and with. As Greg Sestero writes, “‘The Room’ became every bit the blockbuster Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned.”

“The Disaster Artist” was published in 2013 and made into a movie in 2017. The film is directed by James Franco, who stars as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave plays Sestero, who starred in “The Room” and also served as a line producer. (“When we began, I had no idea what a line producer was. Neither did Tommy.”)

Sestero and Wiseau met four years before production on “The Room” started. During this time they developed a bond. While they were an odd pair – Sestero a clean cut kid from the ‘burbs; Wiseau an eastern European eccentric who wore his heart on his sleeve but also was very secretive about his origins – they both felt like outsiders and shared a dream of making it big in Hollywood. The time they spent together made Sestero qualified to give a well-rounded portrait of Wiseau and his work.

The brothers Franco do a good job capturing the dynamic. James, whose accent of undetermined origin is fairly consistent, is by turns sympathetic and cringe-worthy. He is your older brother who didn’t get enough oxygen at birth. When he tries to woo an agent at a Hollywood restaurant by bellowing Shakespeare, you genuinely don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Dave may be Wozniak to James’ Steve Jobs (there are some parallels in the idiosyncrasies and heavy handed communication style of Wiseau and those of the Apple mogul) but his Greg is not afraid to call out Tommy’s inappropriate behavior. At the same time, when he applauds after Tommy finally nails a line after having mangled it every way possible, he comes across as genuinely happy for Tommy, not just glad to be done with the scene.

In the latter half of the film, Seth Rogen gives an effective straight performance as beleaguered script supervisor Sandy Schklar. Paul Scheer, known as whipping boy Andre on “The League” goes toe-to-toe with Franco as photography director Raphael Smadja. Another “League” veteran, Jason Mantzoukas, is Peter Anway, a go-between for Wiseau and the venue where he is shooting. Those who remember Mantzoukas from “The League” as the psychopath Rafi may find it amusing to see him playing a fairly sane character. June Diane Raphael, known for “Grace and Frankie” and as an occasional guest star on “The League” (no wonder I was drawn to this movie!) plays the actress Robyn Paris, whose role is more about quality than quantity as her few lines provide insight into Tommy and the script. Ari Gaynor brings positivity to Juliette Danielle, the actress who played the thankless role of Lisa, Tommy’s love interest. Zac Efron has an unlikely stint as Dan Janjigian, who plays the violent drug dealer Chris-R. Because we don’t see much of Dan Janjigian out of character in the film, by proxy, the wholesome Efron becomes the dealer and pulls it off.

If the film has one shortcoming, it’s the narrative structure. The book alternates between flashbacks and the present; having multiple storylines helps keep interest. For the first half of the film, we see little besides James and Dave. While the constant shifts in time of the book might not have translated well on screen, breaking up the timeline a few times would have helped the pacing. The film doesn’t make much of a side plot about Greg’s girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) and their breakup (although the book doesn’t get much into this either); this is a storyline that should either have been developed further or dropped.

The book ends as “The Room” is about to screen for the first time. Sestero knows that we know what happens and opts to conclude by celebrating Tommy’s fulfilment of his dream and ignoring the inevitable ridicule and eventual redemption that would follow: “Although I knew Tommy’s film wasn’t going to be received the way he wanted it to be that night, I hoped he’d be able to recognize how incredible this experience really was.”

The film shows Tommy getting more and more upset as the audience laughs their way through the premiere. Greg has to talk him off the ledge: “Look at how much fun they’re having. They fucking love it, man! How often do you think Hitchcock got a response like this?” The last scene feels rushed as Franco compresses “The Room”‘s journey from bomb to cult classic and Tommy’s transformation from reject to folk hero. With a run time of 104 minutes, there would have been some room to elaborate on the aftermath of the film without belaboring the point.

These critiques aside, both the book and movie are worthwhile and entertaining, celebrating misfits and unlikely dreams. As Adam Scott says in the film’s introduction, “People are still watching a movie and talking about a movie. People aren’t doing that about whatever won the Oscar for Best Picture ten years ago.”

During the closing credits, there is a side-by-side comparison between “The Room” and the cast of “The Disaster Artist” reproducing some of the film’s most infamous scenes. Franco and company are clearly having fun but are also respectful; perhaps they see themselves in the struggles their characters felt trying to survive Hollywood, Tommy Wiseau and “The Room.”

July 3, 2016

#115) Remembering Cimino

No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog post.

Late 1970s. A movement that recently dominated has shown signs of fading from public favor. In these uncertain times, a young rising star becomes the darling of the industry. Seen as infallible, he is given unlimited power to create the masterpiece that will bring glory, fame and influence to all involved.

Result: disaster.

No, we’re not talking about Howard Scott Warshaw and the “E.T.” video game, but a man whose life had some interesting parallels to that of the Atari software engineer. Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino has become the latest unfortunate addition to the Class of 2016 at age 77.

You don’t have to have seen “The Sicilian” or “Year of the Dragon”(I haven’t) to find the life of Cimino intriguing; indeed it’s at least as compelling a movie subject as, oh, I don’t know, say the Johnson County War. There are one-hit wonders (If they can make a movie about Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, why not one about Cimino?) There are those who are remembered only for one unfortunate moment, such as Miss Teen South Carolina and that guy who didn’t catch the ground ball Mookie Wilson hit. It’s unusual, however, for a person to be associated equally with a brilliant achievement and a dumpster fire. Yet Cimino’s story also has familiar elements of hubris and the American tendency to build something up, start resenting its power and then tear it down (not unlike the Son of Beast roller coaster.)

After his first film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), starring and produced by Clint Eastwood, Cimino swung for the fences with a $15 million Vietnam War epic. His studio, EMI, was wary. Just a few years removed from “The Godfather”, director-oriented movies were starting to seem like financial risks. A cerebral thriller called “Sorcerer” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was badly beaten at the box office by another movie released the same weekend: “Star Wars.” How would audiences respond to a film with a “gruesome storyline and a barely known director?”

“The Deer Hunter” brought in $49 million at the box office and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. New Hollywood was still alive. Now signed with United Artists, Cimino was given full creative control over his next project, a film with an estimated $7.5 million price tag. The director and his crew headed up to the Montana wilderness in the spring of 1979 to start filming with the goal of finishing in time for the year’s Oscar season.

By the time “Heaven’s Gate” was released in November of 1980, its budged had exploded to $44 million and it had already been the subject of many tabloid stories. The film–cut from its original five hours to three and a half–was pulled after only one week of release. A two and a half hour re-release in 1981 also tanked. When the dust settled, “Heaven’s Gate” had made $1.5 million and was blamed for the demise of United Artists Studios. With Francis Coppola’s “One From The Heart” ($26 million budget, $636,000 box office), “Heaven’s Gate” also effectively ended the era of director-oriented pictures. Cimino directed four more films but his career never lived up to its promise.

Yet the years have been kind to “Heaven’s Gate.” Re-releases of the film have met with acclaim; while its flaws are not overlooked its virtues are also given light. Perhaps Cimino’s ultimate vindication came from general understanding that the post-New Hollywood way hasn’t resulted in better films. As Coppola said in 2000, “Directors don’t have much power anymore, the executives make unheard of amounts of money, and budgets are more out of control than they ever were. And there hasn’t been a classic in ten years.” In the 2004 documentary “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” former UA exec Steven Bach states, “The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

Now that Cimino has joined “Heaven’s Gate” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), how will he be remembered?  This article from the Guardian might provide a clue: “…[Y]ou don’t always have to think of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘classic’ as incompatible. Just this once, you’re permitted both.”


October 29, 2013

#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.