I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
by Preston Barta
Of the days not to be missed at the festival, Sunday had a pretty good lineup to pull in the crowds. Not only did it see the world premiere of SXSW regulars Seth Rogen and James Franco’s new movie The Disaster Artist, but it also showed how much (more) butt Charlize Theron can kick in David Leitch’s action-thriller Atomic Blonde.
As usual, not all titles amounted to their potential quality. Some were downright brutal, like the sort of movie you wouldn’t even force your greatest enemy to watch. But hey, it happens. Not all of them can be winners. The important thing is to enjoy the overall experience and the notes between the tangents.
This indie oddball assembled one of the most impressive casts of any film at the festival. As we’ve mention in past reviews, this could be a tell-tale sign the film isn’t going to be a memorable one. Either there are too many characters to keep up with and the viewer’s head spins, or there are simply just too many cameos that distract from the story.
Lemon, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Janicza Bravo, is combination of the two. It includes the talents of Brett Gelman (also co-writer), Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Nia Long, Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Shiri Appleby, Martin Starr and many, many more. Many seem to be there for a filmmaker’s favor, or just for the chance to kick-it with people who’ve displayed greater strengths in performance art elsewhere. It’s hard to believe all these people know what the hell they were signing up for.
The story – or whatever it is – is a loose narrative about a man (Gelman) whose life begins to deteriorate when his blind wife of 10 years (Greer) is fed up with their sad relationship. The man, Isaac, teaches acting classes, has a man crush on his top student (Cera), and constantly likes to prove his worth to people but only comes off as a pretentious douchebag.
While there are plenty of films out there that center on unlikable characters, it’s difficult to stay in for a movie that doesn’t seem too keen on making any progress along the way. Issac’s actions just get worse and worse as the movie goes on — spray painting the words “white n*gger” on Cera’s character’s vehicle, discussing “vagina nubs” with a friend whom Issac has to bird-sit for, or an over-the-line sequence where Issac drops his phone into a toilet filled with his own colon blow. If you’re lunch is slowly reaching the top of your throat by merely reading this, try watching it.
So if Lemon pops up on your On-Demand queue down the line, I’d strongly consider saving 90 minutes of your life for something else.
FITS AND STARTS
In our festival preview a few weeks back we teased this film and mentioned how we gravitate toward comedic dramas starring relatively unknown actors from comedy shows. When you look at films such as Obvious Child or Celeste & Jesse Forever, it seems like a golden formula to have supporting/guest stars from beloved television shows take on true-to-life topics like divorce, abortion and relationship obstacles.
Starring Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show) and Greta Lee (Inside Amy Schumer), Fits and Starts centers on a couple who both write for a living and the complexities involved with the competitive art scene. Anyone who’s married to someone in the same line of work knows how challenging such a thing can be — and Fits and Starts doesn’t hold back in proving it.
The great thing about Laura Terruso’s directorial debut is how the situations she throws her characters into feel as if they’re plucked from our own personal experiences. We may have not gone through the same series of trials the central couple face, but the way in which Terruso writes and directs them flows quite organically. There’s a natural progression because of her specificity.
While Fits and Starts may also be a smaller film to wind up on some streaming service, seek it out as soon as it’s made available because it’s the kind of film awards are made for.
Continuing her hot action-movie streak, Charlize Theron plays an undercover MI6 agent who’s assigned to follow a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.
In short, I was very excited to watch a realistic spy-thriller directed by stuntman-turned-filmmaker David Leitch (John Wick, upcoming Deadpool sequel) that also happens to star Theron. The way the trailer sells the combat sequences, it was no doubt going to continue Leitch’s streak of practical filmmaking with fights that look nothing shy of real.
Atomic Blonde is gorgeous to look at, has an exciting ’80s greatest hits soundtrack, and occasionally dazzles with its expected great stunt work – especially one 15-minute throwdown with some goons in a hallway – but much of the plot feels hollow. Perhaps Leitch got too confident behind the camera because of the reception of John Wick. However, unlike the case with John Wick, the story is too complicated for its own good.
THE DISASTER ARTIST
James Franco’s directing works always have me skeptical. He’s a weird dude. He may be a scholar with 50 different degrees (not accurate) and a fancy for finger paintings, but he has made some outlandish features.
With The Disaster Artist, Franco steps away from Cormac McCarthy adaptations to make a movie about the making of another one — and it just so happens to be the best decision Franco has made as a filmmaker. It highlights the peculiar career of Tommy Wiseau and his 2003 disasterpiece The Room — a title that is largely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time, but people love it for Wiseau’s passion for the arts.
Franco delicately balances the film as a funny and poignant tribute about perseverance and friendship, utilizing its packed cast (including Dave Franco, Seth Rogen and Zac Efron) for good. Each actor may not have a fully developed character, but they make their presence known and produce a few laughs in the process. Look for it later this year.