By Eric Plaag
The Room (2003)
Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/lead actor/visionary behind this bizarre cinematic disaster, is a man who defies categorization. Is he a genius? An auteur? A certifiable looney? Or just a jilted lover playing out his tortured relationship on screen as a form of imagined, mediated vengeance? We may never know for sure. What we can know is that Wiseau is very serious about this endeavor, and that’s what makes this dreck so hilarious to watch. Whether it’s Johnny’s (Wiseau) shifting eastern European/pigeon Korean-English accent, or the disturbing, overlong, soft porn love scenes with Johnny’s girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), or the multitude of non sequiturs that defy any rational explanation (“Thank you honey, this is a beautiful party! You invited all my friends. Good thinking!”), The Room is a head-scratching, torturously long, but oddly compelling production that will make you think twice about ever making that film you’ve always wanted to shoot with your buddies. Ostensibly a romantic drama, The Room chronicles the implosion of Johnny and Lisa’s relationship after she aggressively pursues Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) with a vindictiveness that would play like satire if there weren’t really bat-shit crazy women just like Lisa in the real world. For Wiseau, though, this isn’t a romp. He’s deadly serious about his “craft” and his “vision,” as the DVD extras clearly demonstrate, and his inability to disguise this earnestness on film is perhaps what makes his production so oddly endearing. Someone, someday will write a dissertation on this mesmerizing mess, but in the meantime, the rest of us will just have to sit back, watch, laugh our asses off, and thank the good Lord that we’ve never done anything this ridiculously misguided with our creative juices. The Room is a must-see if ever there was one, but only in the way that a half-pound bacon bleu cheeseburger with grilled mushrooms and onions wedged between two hot Krispy Kreme original glazed donuts is a must eat. It sounds like a good idea, and you’ll love it while you do it, but you’ll never want to do it again.
DVD, 0 out of 5 stars as a film, 5 out of 5 stars as a social experience
Before Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) arrived on MLB’s scene, the formula for building a championship baseball team was gospel throughout the league: Buy a bunch of bloated, underachieving, big bat veterans, find a couple of pitching aces, and cross your fingers that everything else will come together. Big market teams repeatedly trounced the smaller market ones with payrolls that rarely translated to a worthwhile return on their overextended investments. With the help of young economist and statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), though, Beane went squarely against the conventional wisdom, jettisoning the bloated contracts and problem personalities in small-market Oakland and building a team of low-risk, high-reward players based on the sabermetric theory that privileges on-base percentage (as well as other statistics not discussed in the film) over more traditional hallmarks such as batting average or home runs. Moneyball recounts Beane’s uphill struggle against the league and his own colleagues in-house, and it ably demonstrates the magic of the sabermetric approach and the revolutionary changes it has brought to the game. While the film accurately portrays Oakland’s “just-miss” run at the World Series in 2002, though, it never mentions the perennial also-ran status of the Oakland A’s and fails to address the inherent flaws of a pure sabermetric approach to managing the game, instead leaving us with a saccharine sentiment about Beane and his cloyingly sweet daughter (Kerris Dorsey) as underdog heroes who will get it right the next time around. Moneyball has valuable lessons about perception and thinking outside the box that are well worth taking the teens to see, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as disgruntled A’s manager Art Howe is so dead-on perfect that Hoffman should get an Oscar and Howe should probably sue. As a whole work, though, Moneyball — much like the sabermetric approach to baseball — never exceeds the sum of its parts and comes up short when it matters most.
Theaters, 3 out of 5 stars
Director Kelly Reichardt breaks all the rules of the traditional migratory western, loosely following the true story of the ill-fated trek of several families making their way through the Oregon desert in 1845. Led by recalcitrant and Indian-hating guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the three families portrayed here agree to follow his shortcut, only to discover that he is either inept or preparing to rob them. As water runs short and settlers start to drop dead, the families must come to grips with either killing Meek or continuing to place their own lives in his hands. The arrival of a young Native American (Rob Rondeaux) changes the game, pitting settler Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her ailing husband Soloman (Will Patton) against Meek and even each other as they attempt to decipher Meek’s intentions and negotiate the band’s self-preservation and Meek’s repeated efforts to wreak vengeance on the native in their midst. Reichardt’s imaginative riffs on the dangers of miscommunication and the risks of social isolation — ranging from inaudible dialogue and just-out-of-earshot conversations to the presumptions and unspoken signals the various players make regarding one another’s social status and position — offer a fascinating template for reworking the migratory western. Reichardt’s Oregon desert and its terrible, insidious threats are dead on, too — something typically overlooked or mishandled in the conventional Oregon Trail story. Unfortunately, the glacial pace and inconclusive resolution of Meek’s Cutoff will be a turnoff to many viewers unfamiliar with the historical events that shaped this story, even those who might otherwise be intrigued by the questions it raises, the tools Reichardt employs, and the fine performances by Greenwood and Williams.
See also Matt Smith’s review from earlier this year.
DVD, 3 out of 5 stars
The Ides of March
It’s Presidential campaign season again, and superstar junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) has a world of problems. Not only is the opponent’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) trying to lure him to change employers, but his current candidate, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) isn’t willing to sacrifice his principles in order to pick up a key endorsement in Ohio that would cinch the nomination for Morris’s campaign. When Morris intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) seduces Meyers, though, these philosophical considerations pale in comparison to the secrets and horrors that Stearns unleashes on Meyers, unintentionally threatening to torpedo Morris’s election bid. A panicked Meyers turns to his boss, Morris campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), seeking both absolution and assistance in spinning the issues at hand. What he finds, though, is the philosophical dilemma at the center of The Ides of March. Paul privileges loyalty above all else, no matter the cost, noting that, in politics anyway, it is “the only currency you can count on.” Duffy will do anything to win, cautioning Meyers early on that optimism never lasts in politics, and corruption always wins out. Faced with a choice between accountability and revenge, Meyers chooses the latter. In the viciously cynical climate of today’s American political scene, writer and director Clooney adeptly sets up this dilemma as the one he seems to want all of us to consider in our own lives as political beings: a choice between a path to desolation and a journey shaped by hope, change, and unwavering integrity. Unfortunately, these choices are not this clean and easy in the real world, as Clooney’s own script suggests, nor do they translate well as solutions to what currently ails the nation, despite what Clooney might think to the contrary. Integrity among our political figures seems to have been abandoned by both parties and all of the major candidates available to us, as all those folks down at the Occupy camps illustrate every day. Transforming our fractured political landscape will take more than Morris’s frank and hopeful rhetoric or Paul’s dedication to loyalty and integrity. For these reasons alone, The Ides of March never functions as anything more than a more somber retread of Primary Colors, in spite of its good intentions.
Theaters, 2 out of 5 stars