6 Dec 2017

At The Movies for 6 November 2017

From At The Movies, 7:34 pm on 6 December 2017

Simon Morris checks out James Franco's tribute to a one-of-a-kind director in The Disaster Artist, assesses festive fare The Man Who Invented Christmas and bemoans a lack of surprises in Wonder.

The uniquely untalented creator/star Tommy Wiseau crafted what fans called "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" - The Room.

Now another writer/star - the rather more able James Franco - has attempted to capture its distinctive flavour in a film called The Disaster Artist.

In contrast, a rather more fondly-remembered classic gets the "How Did It Happen" treatment.

The title The Man Who Invented Christmas is a slight over-statement, but the holiday wouldn't be the same without Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

But in fact, there are "making of" short films coming out every week - the trailers for upcoming attractions. Their biggest failing is giving away pretty much all the story.

That seemed to be the case with the unavoidable trailer for a film called Wonder.

The producers, nervous that the subject matter may look a little depressing, went to ridiculous lengths to assure audiences of its feelgood credentials.

But first, another happy ending - of sorts.

After all Tommy Wiseau has given his enthusiastic blessing to the story of his life - The Disaster Artist.

The Disaster Artist may claim to tell all about how the well-known cinematic turkey The Room came to be. But it's relying on the film-maker's account, and Tommy Wiseau is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

We meet Tommy - or rather aspiring actor Greg Sestero meets him - at an acting class in San Francisco.

Greg is crippled by shyness, as well as a staggering shortage of talent. The long-haired eccentric Tommy Wiseau is no more talented, but what he has in abundance is self-belief.

Tommy and Greg hit it off, and head to Hollywood in search of stardom.

Greg at least looks and sounds like an aspiring actor. Tommy looks like a vampire who's joined a heavy metal group, and sounds like… well, it's hard to know where that accent came from.

James Franco not only directs The Disaster Artist, but he has a ball playing the part of Tommy in a way that redefines "chewing the scenery". His brother Dave is rather more restrained as Greg.

Think the story of Hollywood's other worst-ever director Ed Wood, though with Franco playing both the Johnny Depp and Martin Landau parts at the same time.

With no takers for their acting talents, Greg and Tommy come up with another idea - to create something of their own.

It seems an impossible dream, until Tommy not only hammers out a working script, but comes up with the wherewithal to pay for it.

And of course this is where the story really starts. Tommy starts throwing money around - nobody knows where it comes from. He hires actors and crew, he buys expensive equipment and builds expensive sets.

By now we've noticed how remarkably star-studded The Disaster Artist is - particularly for a quirky little film about a well-known terrible movie.

But the combination of the likeable James Franco and the strange allure of the original Room, seem to have attracted half of Hollywood.

Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffiths, Bryan Cranston and Zach Efron - The Disaster Artist is a snapshot of modern Hollywood, or perhaps James Franco's address book.

The best scenes are between Franco and his old mate Seth Rogen.

You don't need to have seen The Room to get The Disaster Artist.

The self-delusion of the original auteur is astonishing and hilarious - both at once, usually.

And if you wonder whether Franco and his writers are exaggerating - surely The Room couldn't have been as appalling as it appears here - The disaster artist plays fair at the end, showing both versions side by side.

Like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, this is a long, loving pastiche of An Incredibly Strange Movie. And also like it, there's very little else to it other than a vague message to Follow Your Dream, no matter how misguided.

But the sting is taken out of the tail of a potentially cruel and sneery story by the fact we know how it comes out.

In fact the ending of The Disaster Artist is inevitable - its astonishing cult status at midnight movie screenings around the world. After all, if no-one had heard of The Room, this later film would never have been made.

I have to say it's very funny, and maybe funny doesn't need any other reason to exist - that and the fact it's a refreshing reminder of a time before Hollywood played it so safe. A film like this hardly ever gets made now.

Either way, like its subject, The Disaster Artist is not quite like anything you've seen before.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is probably the most famous story about the Christmas festival ever - certainly the most filmed or televised.

In its way, the tale of the miser Scrooge, his loyal employee Bob Cratchitt and Bob's crippled son Tiny Tim is just about perfect. So would we like to know how the story came to be written?

Actually, the correct answer to that sort of question is "No thank you". Like any work of art, it's enough that it exists, surely. And who says this is an accurate story of how Charles Dickens gathered together the elements of his timeless classic?

But the Canadian and Irish producers of The Man Who Invented Christmas are determined to cloak the original Christmas Carol with another story. Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens plays the author, who - like Shakespeare in Love - has struck a dry patch in his career.

Tweaking history a little, the film suggests that Dickens hasn't had a hit since Oliver Twist and needs one fast.

Not only does he have to support a wife, several children and an expensive London house. He's also got a feckless father - played by Jonathan Pryce - who's in constant danger of debtor's prison, or worse.

As the title - The Man Who Invented Christmas - implies, the festive season had fallen out of favour in early Victorian England.

It was now mostly the sort of holiday celebrated by the old-fashioned and the Irish. Like the Dickens' maid Tara.

Ghosts wander around at Christmas Eve, eh? Dickens tucks this away for future use, then visits the theatre, where he meets an unpleasant businessman with a bee in his bonnet.

Bah humbug, eh? Shortly afterwards Dickens visits a cemetery during the funeral of an old, friendless miser. And on the way home he runs into a small crippled child… A small crippled child, eh?

You see what's happening? It turns out Dickens didn't make much of his story up at all - it was mostly there waiting to be put together.

Like the character of Scrooge, played here by Christopher Plummer.

But for all the arch clunkiness of this telling, The Man Who Invented Christmas can't quite destroy the appeal of the original story.

The short extracts from Dickens' A Christmas Carol prove it remains as potent as ever, even in truncated form.

But the scrabbling for some sort of plot for this story often defies belief - or even logic.

The idea that Charles Dickens, that great sentimentalist, was actually toying briefly with a miserable, downbeat ending until persuaded otherwise is as likely as Tiny Tim being originally big and able-bodied.

It's tempting to damn this film with a sweeping "bah humbug". It's not quite that bad - just a bit pointless.

Frankly, anyone looking for a new Christmas Carol is surely going to want the real thing rather than a jokey copy.

But the worst thing about The Man Who Invented Christmas is that I didn't believe a word of it.

There's something about the Christmas season that makes us want to wallow in sentiment - in films like Wonder, written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who's already had a big hit this year with the equally tear-jerking but ultimately feelgood Beauty and the Beast.

But one of the most effective characteristics of a genuinely "feelgood" movie is surely that you don't see it coming. You certainly don't see all the feelgood elements lined up at the starting gate, waiting to do their stuff.

Or, as is the case of Wonder, you haven't been beaten over the head by a trailer repeatedly telling you it'll turn out all right at the end.

The story opens with 10-year-old Auggie explaining he was born looking a bit different, but that after lots of plastic surgery he's finally going to school for the first time.

His parents are the generally adorable Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. What could possibly go wrong?

What goes wrong is that not everyone is as supportive and right-on as Auggie's parents or teachers, and the kid has a rough ride at first.

The film's called Wonder, and we wonder - for about five minutes - whether Auggie will meet nice, sympathetic friends called things like Jack and - oh I don't know - Summer?

All this stuff is not only in the trailer but laid on with a trowel in the trailer, which seems to have played before every movie I've seen in the last two months.

I thought Wonder might be "based on a real-life story", but apparently not.

Instead, it's based on a "New York Times bestseller, telling an incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story" which is certainly true. Particularly the "incredible" part.

Annoyingly, Wonder is rather cheesier than it needed to be. The cast is certainly fine - Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and, as Auggie, Jacob Tremblay, that extraordinary kid in the Oscar-winner Room.

Actually, the secret weapon of Wonder is the one character who barely shows up in the trailers. Her name's Izabela Vidovic - no I'd never heard of her either - and she plays Auggie's sister Via, the one kid in the film who doesn't look like a Hollywood actor.

Like Auggie - in fact like every character in Wonder -Via has A Problem. So has Mum, and each of Auggie's troubled classmates - even the school bully is conflicted.

And every single one of those problems has to be solved before we're allowed out of the cinema. Honestly, it's worse than the multiple endings of Lord of the Rings.

And you just know, once they knock off the very last problem, that Wonder will culminate in a standing ovation - possibly involving the tossing of headgear up in the air.

If I sound cynical, my beef isn't really at the earnest professionals who made as good a Young Adult feature as they could with the material offered. It's at the sales department of the studio who didn't think the audience could be trusted to work it out themselves.

They had to be softened up by a tell-all trailer.

The fact that the parts of Wonder I enjoyed most were those NOT featured in the trailer should tell you something surely, Mister Publicity Man. Next time - in the words of Peter O'Toole at the end of that great Pixar movie Ratatouille - "Surprise me".

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