LOVERS ON THE ROCKS – Beast (2017), dir: Michael Pearce

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There are films you know you’ll enjoy after the first few minutes and Beast is one of them as it sets off to a powerful and laconic prologue. Shots of the magnificent Jersey landscape set the canvas of this painful and crude story, and a pertinent metaphor about captive killer whales instantly draws an accurate psychological portrait of our heroine, Moll.

As the genres of drama, romance and crime thriller blend here, Michael Pearce tells an eerie tale where beasts feed from the ones closest to them or camouflage their monstrous nature with fake smiles and bounded heads, or prey on the weak when their passions are beyond control. The story is complex and smart and the performances impeccable and thrilling. The film has a dreamlike quality where Moll and Pascal experience their romantic love but takes a violent turn when deep inner confrontations occur in the face of the inevitable resolution of the tragedy.

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The two lovers give their first kiss on the edge of a rocky cliff, one wrong step and the fall is uninterrupted. It’s crystal clear right away that there are no half measures with this relationship, it is the kind that brings about radical change and reformation in one’s self. Jessie Buckley gives a haunting and magnetising performance that keeps you glued to the screen, and Johnny Flynn delivers a complicated character, an odd combination of a vulnerable rabbit and a cunning, lethal fox.

Moll’s evolution throughout the film is an ode to liberation but also a cautionary tale against the obsession of love. She rejects her suffocating family, and her overbearing and psychologically abusive mother thanks to the strength and encouragement she draws from Pascal, a man of animalistic presence and natural integrity.

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Pascal is the one who suggests that mistakes are for everyone and are better left in the past. However, up till the end Moll is bearing the guilt of a childhood mistake, which took immense dimensions due to her mother’s consuming fear. I couldn’t help but think that Moll is made to believe she is dangerous and wild when in fact, if she had been treated with more kindness, she would have thrived.  Her flaw is magnified and the daily humiliations she succumbs to compromise her ability to control her impulses and to think rationally.

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Beast brought in mind Wentworth Miller’s Stoker (2013), directed by Park Chan-wook. The relationship between India (Mia Wasikowska) and her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode) bear similar elements to that of Moll and Pascal. Lead performances and cinematic style differ considerably but both films tell the story of two individuals who have always been lonely in a rejecting world and finally, find acceptance and a liberating push through their relationship. For India and Moll this takes the form of a sexual awakening and a journey of self-discovery that takes them in the darkest corners of their minds.

Another noticeable similarity is that of the ending, Moll and India set themselves apart from the madness of their “partners in crime” by acting as improbable avengers. The catharsis of both endings also proves that despite natural and primitive inclinations, it is the choices we make in critical moments that define us.

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After watching Beast, you might be numb by the amalgam of complicated emotions it evokes, feel like driving somewhere far and enjoying the view over a craggy peak. You might also contemplate upon the apocryphal realities we resort to, to crush the fantasy, or alternatively to protect it is a double-edged sword. Finally, you might admit the common belief that opposites attract and liked repel is true only when it comes to magnetism.

 

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Poisonous Collusion of Rival Lovers – Phantom Thread (2017), dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

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It is incredible how immersive is the experience that Anderson gifted us with his incredible, precious creation that resembles an elegant poem. A film that is as dramatic as anecdotal and funny by highlighting the comedy that thrives in uncomfortable and absurd moments of hyperbole. Excellent angles, stills and shaking shots, portraits and landscapes, a plethora of gazes at a beautiful time and space. An unconventional film about extraordinary people that engage in a challenging relationship. Anderson delivers a film so beautifully shot and crafted that lures you into the obsessive control of the couturier, the rebellious passion of the muse/waitress, and the struggling influence of the sister.

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Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral score is truly magnificent and elegant as it intertwines with instrumental classical pieces that enable our transportation into 1950’s London. Don’t be surprised if you feel the pavement under your feet, your fingertips sliding over the fabrics, if you can notice every line on the protagonists’ expression and sense every breath they draw. Anderson constructed a robust world with such impeccable performers embedded that each moment gradually intensifies the cinematic experience and delves you deeper into the soul of its personas.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been carrying a devastating burden throughout his life, calling it a curse and has yet to get over his mother’s death. It seems that by experiencing the loss of his first and most intense love, his mother, who taught him generosity and giving has by admittedly, tragic irony caused him to stubbornly refuse to love anyone ever again. He is not lost completely though to the darkest misery of a loveless existence, his relationship with Alma inevitably restructures his life and mindset.

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The genius of the film lies in the powerful and genuine characters that even in prolonged silence reveal layer by layer the complexity of their psyche. Reynolds in his stillness and persistent gaze, dressed with an overly sweet smile unveils a sickening desire to control every detail in his environment and within him of course by banishing his instincts and feelings. From the first date with Alma, it becomes apparent how desperately he needs to grasp onto his rules and firm convictions.

Reynold’s sister (Lesley Manville) acquires a haunting presence over his life. He seems not to bear life without her, even her absence for a few hours disorients him, however she constitutes a constant reminder of his fears and self-limiting lifestyle. Alma is portrayed with ample naturality and piercing expressiveness by Vicky Krieps who proves herself a charismatic partner to Daniel Day-Lewis as they share with both talent and chemistry.

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There are stunning scenes that elevate Phantom Thread to a classic. For instance, the scene where a jealous Reynolds seeks Alma in despair at the colourful and tacky New Year’s party is breathtakingly intense and dramatic. There are no words in this scene but the performances have an emotional transparency that spurs various thoughts around love, relationships and introspective analysis. The surprise dinner scene is a delicious game involving the power of will, comical exaggerations and a deep sadness. Towards the end, again the dinner scene is terrific as the game continues between the two until the climactic moment of surrender occurs, layered with the release of their passion.

In Phantom Thread we witness two diametrically opposed individuals fighting in their own unique ways to stay together while maintaining their selves intact. Reynolds’s way is to provoke with his spoilt, childish manner and to violently persist in his absurdities. It appears that his ultimate goal is to find a worthy rival that can earn his respect and trust, both necessary to enable his surrender. Alma’s way is an initial submissive stance that is later replaced with a fierce and brave confrontation and declaration of independent will.

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Their conflict has a personality of its own and spreads over the different stages of their relationship, from their first encounter to their cohabitation, to their marriage and finally, to their utter openness and mutual understanding. Unorthodox and peculiar, the resolution is made possible by the accidental discovery that one can fulfil the other’s desire and experience pleasure simultaneously.

Reynolds seems to have no control over his obsessiveness but Alma seems to have come up with a… creative way to disarm him and return him to the infant stage where he can always revive the experience of having a mother figure taking care of him. Alma on the other hand perceives love as the absolute closeness and craves to bring her strong-looking partner to a state of weakness and total physical and emotional dependence on her thus, to fulfil her need to be a nurturer and the centre of his world.

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Are these characters troubled? Certainly! But so are we all, trapped in our shortcomings and subconsciously, if not purposefully seeking the people who can cater to our needs. This scandalous conflict resolution brought La sirène du Mississipi (1969) in mind, where Julie (Catherine Deneuve) and Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo) experience the same oxymoron contradiction that marries lust and loss.

To leave yourself entirely defenceless in the care of the one you love by embracing the dangers but also admitting to the dark hedonism of this state is a powerful experience to convey through storytelling and as Truffaut did in 1969 so does Anderson in this spellbinding ghost story. In the history of cinema, we can find love stories underpinned by seemingly harmful acts, like in Suspicion (1941) or My Cousin Rachel (2017) however in Phantom Thread the act becomes a mechanism for catharsis and we suspect, a tactic for bringing harmony into the relationship, a remedy almost.

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After the film you might feel spellbound and mesmerised by Anderson’s vintage world and its’ captivating performances, you might immerse into Greenwood’s score, indulge yourself with some delicious pastry for breakfast while contemplating about how obsessive you can become with your cyclical habits. You might also place yourself in this unorthodox couple’s shoes by reconsidering the value of seemingly absurd or dangerous acts and by acknowledging the risk of initiating or/and admitting the darkest side of one’s sexuality.

Labour of love – God’s Own Country (2017), dir: Francis Lee

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Francis Lee’s directorial debut is a raw, realistic, and sensual love story between a miserable farmer and his newly hired worker. In an attempt to present the harsh realities of the farming life in addition to not fitting in as he’s experienced it himself, Lee gives us a story so impactful and true to human nature that is impossible to leave one apathetic.

The material is tough but the lead performances are superb, with both Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe) and Josh O’Connor (Johnny) enjoying a captivating chemistry and being exceptional in delivering the emotional depth of their characters. Ian Hart (Martin) and Gemma Jones (Deidre) are brilliant and crudely affective as Johnny’s disabled father and firm grandmother.

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Our first image of Johnny is that of a lonely alcoholic, trapped in a torture of a life. He is not enjoying the company of friends, lovers, or his family and his work is in fact, forced labour. He has no control over his demise and that leads his family to treat him with contempt, pushing him even further to the road of alienation and anger. Johnny’s idea of human contact is so distorted that he is not able to tolerate being touched or kissed, resembling that of a scared animal that first attacks and then runs off.

Gheorghe on the other hand, is calm, grounded, confident and tender. Being an immigrant, he employs sensibility and discipline which comes in complete contrast to Johnny’s carelessness and indulgence. It is remarkable how piercing and emotive is Secareanu’s expression opposite to O’Connor’s tormented look. Johnny’s cry for help is answered in the most compassionate and loving way, granting him acceptance and leading him to a precious connection with a fellow man. The cathartic scenes that follow his surrender to Gheorghe’s affection are disarmingly affective. As Johnny opens up little by little, we witness his life’s shape changing as well.

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Apart from the great scenes between the two leads, there is another I truly loved between Johnny and his father. The particular scene brought East of Eden (1955) in mind, where Cal (James Dean) and his father (Raymond Massey) have a similar purifying exchange marked by those two little words, “Thank you” that seem able to wipe clean years of harshness and bitterness in seconds.

Experiencing the film, it felt as a sensational piece of reality, a precious lesson on the transformational power of love and on the strength necessary to seek a better life by being truer to oneself. In God’s Own Country the silence and loneliness of the Yorkshire countryside is beautifully captured and the relentless and yet, rewarding labour of its people is explicitly presented with honesty and realism. The romantic story that is born and evolves in those landscapes has an impressive intensity and passion that fits the absoluteness of its surroundings.

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After the film you might feel like praising the power of love, experience compassion for the lonely, avoid eating lamb or any livestock for a while, take a trip to the countryside, contemplate about how your surroundings reflect upon your mood and behaviour and finally, you might judge whether you’d be brave enough to oppose to your family’s expectations regarding your work, love life, etc. by following your own path.

A ‘Good’ Beat Story by the ‘Poker Princess’ – Molly’s Game (2017), dir: Aaron Sorkin

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Molly’s Game is a woman’s psychography with juicy incidents and legal repercussions embedded in it. Sorkin’s script never disappoints as characters fire their brilliant and profound lines to each other with great velocity and precision and thus, amaze and impress us while also, saving the slightly overlong film from feeling tiring. Daniel Pemberton’s score dresses the film in energetic, upbeat tones, melancholic pieces and thrilling bursts as we’ve seen in his previous works Steve Jobs, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Counselor, etc.

The opening scene serves as a dynamic introduction to the competitive, distinguished and smart character of Molly Bloom, a true survivor and determined fighter. Molly is a sassy, impetuous and charming woman with a one-of-a-kind story and so, represents a symbol of both femininity and feminism. Jessica Chastain’s voiceovers are guiding us through Molly’s experiences and life lessons while the film bounces back and forth in time between her childhood, her career steps and the present-time lawsuit.

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The incredibly talented Chastain employs the body language signs and the smooth, thin voice that help her pass for the 22 year-old Molly (when she is in fact 40). To witness her transformation is tremendously exciting, as Chastain’s captivating confidence achieves a magnificent connection with the audience. By staying true to the fiery and sexual real-life persona, she executes a powerful female role beautifully, with precision and absolute focus and makes it impossible to take our eyes off her.

The scenes between Chastain and Idris Elba (her lawyer) are remarkably well-acted and resemble the quickest ping pong game of witty lines. The stories of the players involved keep up the interest; the eerie and villainous ‘Player X’ (Michael Cera), the listless and silly-looking ‘Bad Brad’ (Brian d’Arcy James), the tragic figure of Harlan (Bill Camp) and the mumbling caricature of Douglas (Chris O’Dowd) give the film its’ unique poker flavour.

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After having experienced admittedly traumatising events Molly seems powerless and passive when defending herself against the prosecution. To her rescue comes of course, her lawyer and a demonstration of his conviction of her innocence and – despite having broken the law – integrity escalates to an intense argument. Although I recognise the necessity of the scene, it slightly bothered me that Molly’s independent and unapologetic demeanour had to be diminished toward the end of the film and that she should be passionately defended by someone else. I recognise however, that showing Molly defeated and humiliated enhances the story’s credibility, as even the toughest fighters can reach the end of their rope.

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A genuinely funny and emotional scene is that of Costner (Molly’s father) and Chastain, taking the form of a humorous hubris against psychotherapy and shedding light to the unspoken sorrows that drifted them apart. The first argument her father makes is that her subconscious motive behind running the high-stakes games was to control powerful men, having being supressed by his demanding attitude as a child. He soon revokes this as it was only meant to provoke her and set her tongue loose regarding the main pain between them.

It got me thinking however, whether this argument could in fact, stand. Looking at the film and how Molly used her sexuality, to simply manipulate players and preserve her position, I’d say that she wanted power, period. Reigning over a male-dominated industry certainly granted her an even greater pleasure for going against the unwritten rules but overall, she was not aiming to control powerful men but simply, powerful people.

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After the film you might give poker a try, google Molly Bloom, explore Chastain’s filmography to the last, be reminded of how decisive our style choices are in shaping people’s opinion of us. You might imagine whether you’d have pleaded guilty or not, had it been you in Molly’s place. Also, the film might bring forth concerns about your risk love or aversion, whether you’d have the grit to go against the law, or how deeply corrupted you’d end up being by greed for money and power. Finally, you might reconsider the realistic distance between success and failure.

Delusion and self-absorption crisis – Brad’s Status (2017), dir: Mike White

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Self-absorbed and tormented is the status of Brad as we find him beating himself up over the unfulfilled successes he once hoped for himself by comparing his life achievements with those of his college mates. Brad reflects upon the ambitions of his youth, his wife’s influence, the conflicted feelings regarding his son’s potential future success and that of his old friends who in his eyes have far exceeded anything he has accomplished. Voice overs as the storytelling device give us access to the perplexity of Brad’s emotions and perception of the world, the real one and the one created by his fantasies around the lives of his friends.

The film has an unsettling disharmonic score that feels like irritating and rough sound circles and matches perfectly with Brad’s introspective, obsessive analysis of his situation. On paper Brad is not a likeable character and the opening scene makes sure to illuminate his absurdity and neurotic preoccupation with measuring success. However, Mike White’s script draws a daringly honest and sarcastic picture of a middle-aged man who is taking inventory of his life and that brings out our empathy for him, as we recognise his weaknesses and egotism in ourselves.

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Ben Stiller (Brad) is transparent, vulnerable and affective with carefully measured expressiveness and focus.  Austin Abrams on the other hand projects a calm power and sensitivity as Brad’s son, Troy whose confidence and security get shaken due to his father’s high emotional investment into securing him a place in Harvard and at the same time, his questioning the value of sending him to college at all.

White’s script is piercing and impactful by shedding light to dark corners of the human psyche and giving us access to the mind of a man who submits himself into compulsive and agonising comparisons. Towards the end, Brad meets one of his old and very successful friends, in a beautifully acted and thus, uncomfortable to watch restaurant scene and the realisations he comes to carry him to a musical catharsis. In the final scene, we are given a slide hope that he might be exiting the phase of taking stock or at least, beginning to appreciate the good things in his life, his loving family for instance.

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After the film you might fear the moment you will experience a midlife crisis, think about how you measure success and remember that friend you will always feel competitive towards. You might also, contemplate upon Troy’s words about how we should only care about the opinion of our loved ones, as the rest of the world is too self-absorbed to even notice us and finally, be honest about the extent of your vanity and the length of egocentric inner dialogues that go through your mind every day.

Even Dickens’s Ghosts would have given up – All the Money in the World (2017), dir: Ridley Scott

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Being rich is the hard task, becoming rich can just as well be an idiot’s achievement. This is one of the few quotes delivered by Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. Early on in the film we also get a mini lecture from Getty on how unnecessary and incorrect is the word ‘priceless’, as everything has a price.

Ridley Scott’s crime thriller explores the price of the human life, which here is that of the grandson of the world’s richest man at that time. Getty, the grandfather in question has made crystal clear from the beginning that he appreciates art over people, as in art there is the purity of transparency and straight-forwardness, in contrast to people’s duplicitous nature.

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Although he fantasises, quite comically, about having lived as a Roman Emperor in a previous life, it’s rather obvious he is the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, only ten times worse. His inconceivably cruel behaviour towards his daughter in law, Gail (Michelle Williams) and his 16-year old grandson (Charlie Plummer) when kidnapped, is the driving force of a real-life drama that stirs up our conception of love, family, power and greed.

The film’s rhythm fluctuates from quick transitions and fast progressions to a slower, more dramatic tone that better served the dialogues. The simple story is intertwined with the promise of complicated characters and minor twists that keep the viewer interested, despite the film’s general flat and quiet tone.

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For instance, young Paul changing hands as a hostage intensifies the thriller atmosphere, Gail’s discovery that her father-in-law has always been a cheap human being that even gave cheap gifts serves as a ungranted relief. Along with the member of the gang that felt for the boy and the doomed escape, these are all examples of what was done right here. The film might not succeed to immerse viewers completely but performances take you where you need to go to enjoy it.

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Michelle Williams didn’t bring enough energy to the part at first, seemed almost unfocussed but around the middle, she picked up by communicating the quiet pain and despair of a woman that had to put up with Getty’s obsession for negotiating prices (in this case ransom), his false pretences for not sparing a nickel and the intense pressure from the kidnappers. Indeed, as did a paparazzi in the film, I found myself wondering why she came across so calm and why even her sorrow and agony were moderately demonstrated. However, in a couple of scenes, when she finds out the price of the statue and when she discovers Getty’s bust, she is remarkable and piercing. Might have been part of Williams’s process but unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as it opposed to my innate belief that the situation asked for explosive and loud reactions.

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This sort of reaction is found in one particular scene delivered by Mark Wahlberg, here as the professional negotiator Fletcher Chase who was appointed from Getty to deal with the kidnappers’ unreasonable requests. The scene is a beautiful confrontation that results in a shocked and mentally defeated Getty. Worth mentioning here is how great Christopher Plummer was in a part that came to him unexpectedly and had to be executed then and there, without preparation within a month.

Although it might be unfair to judge without having seen the scenes he shot (nor will we ever…), I’m glad we got to see Plummer in a heavy, unapologetic and vicious version of Getty as I’m afraid that Spacey’s performance would have too much of Frank Underwoood in it. Plummer is excellent in his few scenes and manages to find the subtlest ways to demonstrate emotion, with his face assuming the role of the most precious tool.

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After the film you might feel more generous and giving, think about your grandparents, start feeling very protective of your ears, and contemplate how subjective are the value and price of our lives to the people around us. You might also, have long conversations about Getty’s psyche in order to explain his complete lack of compassion for a loved one but end up to the disappointing conclusion that accessing the source of cruelty will only provide evidence of how prone we are to it.

Who Dares, Wins – The Disaster Artist (2017), dir: James Franco

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For decades, the writer, director, producer and star of the ‘best worst film ever made’ has been a mystery. We still have no clue about his country of origin, his age, where his money come from, etc. But isn’t it the mystery around one’s origins and personality a necessary ingredient for exciting people’s curiosity and giving birth to wild theories around them? In the case of Tommy Wiseau in particular, his secretive and yet, absurdly eccentric persona rose to fame when it was channelled through his first ‘masterpiece’, The Room.

Watching The Disaster Artist you get the feeling that James Franco has a special connection with Wiseau’s persona and as clear a vision as the latter claimed to have while making his own film. Putting them side by side (end credits prove the adaptation has excelled in detail), it is evident that Franco has fully immersed into Wiseau’s existence and got out with more shades that we ever got from the man himself in interviews. Franco captures the bizarre, outwardly amalgam of accents, the occasional high-pitch finishing of words, the dizzy intonation and of course, the signature fake laughter.

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The film succeeds to introduce the character in a scene shockingly funny, painfully embarrassing and also, strangely relatable that manages to connect you with this bizarre man. He is passionate and daring but instantly strikes us as a tragic clown as he is not aware of himself in relation to others and that is a guarantee for loneliness. And lonely he is, until he finds a true friend in Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), or ‘Babyface’(a la Tommy) and they begin the journey to stardom together.

The film immediately starts to explore the bond between the two, with a hopeful and honest bromance flourishing around their common aspirations. But what at first, looks like a hymn to unlikely friendship and an inspirational pursuit of a dream, soon becomes a tale haunted by jealousy, bursts of anger, and manipulative handling.

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The film insinuates that beyond jealousy and fear of losing a companion, there’s a romantic infatuation that triggers Tommy’s despair when Greg slowly slips away. However, it is disappointing that it avoids taking a closer look and consequently, ends up raising questions around Tommy’s psyche and sexuality, and Greg’s inexhaustible tolerance.

Franco’s portrayal of Tommy is full of compassion and childish spontaneity that makes him a likeable caricature, funny but never entirely, as there’s great guilt in laughing at someone who is doing their best, however insufficient and ridiculous that might be. This is perhaps what makes the film uniquely entertaining, the duplicity of the source of our laughter, genuinely farcical scenes layered with the realisation that the person in question has no intention of being funny and thus, having is laugh at the tragedy of a man being trapped in his ridiculousness.

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Franco allows us to peep into Tommy’s feelings and sense the vulnerability and the pain stemming from rejection. There are scenes where we get a glimpse of a more complex human being that escapes the caricature. These scenes include his ‘Shakespeare performance’ in the restaurant, the advice he gets from the acting teacher, the casting scene where he is trying to ‘lose the accent’, his confrontation with his film crew for their insults (captured by his behind-the-scenes cameraman/snitch), and his despair towards the audience’s reaction to his movie, amongst others.

In these, Franco’s face is heart-breaking as a slight emotional transparency is achieved, just enough to invoke empathy but quickly, flashes back the childness and stubborn persistence in ridiculousness of the man. To make matters worse, Tommy’s immature and absurd reactions to Greg’s success with women, and later on, to his first potential career break show us his unflattering side and are inconsistent to his generous and friendly nature, as presented at the beginning of the film.

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Admittedly, Tommy’s angry attacks and violent disappointment is bearing the pressures of completing his project but also, the helplessness of his utter loneliness. According to Sestero who wrote the book adapted here by Franco, Wiseau felt that ‘no one was grateful’ for giving them a job or ‘respected his vision’ and perhaps, despite his constant, unreasonable denial of reality he might have had some doubts himself about his abilities and the quality of his brainchild.

In spite of the darkness and loneliness we mostly infer than actually see in the film, there is an ensemble of great supporting actors, with Seth Rogen giving voice to the audience, Jacki Weaver expressing love for the craft and bafflement over the script, Paul Scheer being discreetly funny, and many others.

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After the film you might invite your friends over for a re-watch of The Room, greet everyone starting with “oh, hi…” and try at least once screaming “You’re tearing me apart…” a la Wiseau. You might be haunted for the rest of your days by Tommy’s stage imitation of Marlon Brando’s Streetcar Named Desire famous scene, be tempted to display some craziness in a public place and perhaps, remember when was the last time YOU took a chance and went after your dream, despite it being against the odds and everyone else’s opinion?