MDQ Fest Round-Up 3: Lucky, Disaster Artist, Shape of Water and Outrage: Coda

Notes from the 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Benjamín Harguindey

The 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival runs November 17-26 and today we cover movies being shown outside competition: Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, USA), The Disaster Artist (James Franco, USA), The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA) & Outrage: Coda (Takeshi Kitano, Japan).

Lucky premiered March this year, and only after the death of lead actor and film legend Harry Dean Stanton does it now show in Argentine cinemas. Directed by actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch, it puts the hapless wanderer of Paris, Texas (1984) front and center in this poignant reflection on death and the acceptance of death. That it manages to do so without ending in petty sentimentality makes it even more genuine and powerful.

The beginning, much like David Lynch‘s The Straight Story (1999), kicks off with an old man falling to the ground in his own house. There’s nothing physically wrong with Lucky (Stanton), but he takes it as a warning sign: he’s mortal and will surely die. Confined to a strict daily routine of lounging around his favorite bars and diners, he ambles around town engaging the folk in his pessimistic meditations on the meaning of it all. Patrons include David Lynch himself – a man bereaved by the sudden disappearence of his beloved pet tortoise – Ron Livingston as a lawyer concerned with all things postmortem and Tom Skerritt as a fellow veteran, ready to swap war stories with Lucky (again mirroring Lynch’s Straight Story).

It’s easy to pinpoint Stanton’s performance as the movie’s breakthrough and raison d’être. He is quiet, weary and dignified, but above all fearless in the way he boards his character’s old age and crippling impotence at the fate that awaits him. Very discretely and insidiously, the movie becomes an everyday quest for peace of mind and it gets there without taking any of the dreaded Hallmark shortcuts of sentimentality or sappy melodrama.

The Disaster Artist is one of the funniest. When was the last time I laughed so loud and so regularly at the movies? Based on actor Greg Sestero‘s eponymous memoir, about the making of the infamously awful cult flick The Room (2003), it’s directed and stars James Franco as “Room” star and director Tommy Wiseau, he of the unplaceable accent and weirdo mannerisms and speaking patterns. Whoever Wiseau really is (his bizarre mysticism is one of the movie’s best running gags), in 2003 he more or less single-handedly created an embarrassingly incompetent vanity project that as far as the internet is concerned has become one of the worst movies ever made. “Disaster Artist” has a lot of fun imagining the story behind the making of that movie.

Told from the perspective of Sestero (Dave Franco), Greg and Tommy team up during acting class and almost immediately decide to take on Hollywood. Greg has the looks, if not the talent; Wiseau has a lot of cash (how!?) and after being spurned by pretty much everybody goes into producing his film debut, never mind that he doesn’t know how to act, write or direct. He gathers round a cast and crew of people aghast at the man and his rambling nonsense of a movie project but hey, the cheques don’t bounce and as one actress puts it, the best day of your life doesn’t hold a candle to the worst day on a movie set.

In Wiseau, Franco probably saw a kindred spirit – an uncompromising artist who stuck to a vision nobody else shared.  I want to say a lot of misguided passion went into The Room, but is there such a thing as misguided passion, argues the movie? To be laughed at is better than to be ignored or bore people, and Wiseau has entertained millions with his spectacular failure. So does Franco now with The Disaster Artist. If you think about it, it’s first and foremost thanks to Tommy Wiseau that we owe an actually great movie.

The Shape of Water is the latest dark fantasy from Guillermo del Toro, in which the Mexican filmmaker treats himself and the audience with an indulgent pastiche that throws in antiquated genres like monster movies, fairy tales and even musicals at one point. Set in the pseudo 60s, the movie stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a lonely, mute janitor working the depths of some kind of secret government facility (think Black Mesa from Half-Life) that one day opens its doors to a brutal G-Man (Michael Shannon) and his prisoner, a mysterious creature held in a water tank. The scientists want to study it and the military wants to weaponize it, but in the creature Elisa finds a kindred spirit and after befriending throughout several sessions of pantomime she hatches a plan to set it free.

The movie looks beautiful and through the use of saturated light and the color-coding of the characters and the sets it conveys its fairy tale tone quite adeptly, switching between the cute, the humorous and the bloody as Del Toro knows how. Hawkins gives a great performance, alternatively frustrated and inspired by the boundaries of her silence, and the supporting players are impeccably cast in fun, interesting characters (Shannon is of course a wonderful villain; Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg make in turn invaluable, nicely-rounded allies).

The one pet peeve I had, paradoxically, was the creature itself (playesd by Del Toro’s Doug Jones as usual). It simpy doesn’t have much personality going for itself. It kinda looks like Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien (also Jones) and never quite develops much of a presence as the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon, the obvious inspiration for the part. Elisa essentially emotes for the both of them, with the so-called ‘Asset’ behaving either as a feral beast or a pretty passive creature. None of this helps sell the eventual romance between it and Elisa, though Hawkins certainly gets away with it.

Outrage: Coda is the third and very final movie in Takeshi Kitano‘s Outrage series, which on the whole consists of only two kinds of scenes: 1) meetings in which elderly yakuza members berate each other while contemplating what has just happened, what’s happening and what will probably happen, and 2) sudden flashes of bizarre violence. Rather like a film noir, the point of these movies is to get lost in the labyrinthine plot and watch the exposed clockwork of the criminal underworld in full motion. Kitano stars as Otomo, a fallen crime boss ready to make his grand comeback amidst the warring Hanabishi family from Tokyo and Mr. Chang’s Korean crew.

Already the first movie, from 2010, seemed like the kind of perfunctory indulgence Kitano might go for after so many years without turning out one of his trademark yakuza flicks. It was violent, largely plotless and overall pointless (in its suggestion that one cycle of violence begets another), but also hypnotic in style and absurdly funny. The second movie, Beyond Outrage (2012), was more of the same, which was good enough. “Coda” is yet another helping, although it’s a good hour before Otomo comes into full play and much of anything happens. In its final stage, “Coda” is missing some of the more fun characters from the first couple of movies – chiefly Ishihara and Kataoka – and doesn’t quite measure up in terms of absurdity, comedy or violence, but even in its watered-down state the movie has a spellbinding quality to it.

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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