Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

61320-b-shoot-em-up

Shoot ‘Em Up
Dir. Michael Davis
Premiered at Comic-Con July 26, 2007

Shoot ‘Em Up is probably the third best action/thriller parody of 2007.

It starts out promisingly. A mysterious drifter known only as Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) sees a heavily pregnant woman running away from a random thug. He grudgingly gets involved, helping her give birth while blowing away a seemingly limitless number of assassins led by the conniving Hertz (Paul Giamatti). When the woman is killed in the crossfire, Smith brings the baby to a lactating prostitute named DQ (Monica Bellucci).

When the assailants keep coming, Smith and DQ try to keep the baby safe while figuring out what the hell is going on: the baby and its now-murdered siblings are being harvested for bone marrow for a leukemia-stricken presidential candidate (Daniel Pilon) who’s made a powerful enemy in the National Rifle Association.

Shoot ‘Em Up should be a joyously bloody send-up of ultraviolent B-movies of yore, but it’s no Strike Force Eagle 3: the Reckoning. Director Michael Davis apparently developed the film himself as a passion project, but I see no passion in his direction. The movie is startlingly unstylish in a way that drains all the fun out of the movie. It’s incredibly drab, and the cinematography is decidedly deficient in wide shots (it’s not totally without them, like some later action movies).

Most of all though, Shoot ‘Em Up suffers from way too much CGI: CGI blood, CGI sparks, CGI car stunts, CGI clouds. Obviously, some things in the film couldn’t have been done with practical effects, but most of the scenes, which should be very cool, are robbed of their weight, and thus of any adrenaline rush intended for the viewer.

It’s also trying way too hard to convince the audience that it’s taking place in the United States. Ostensibly set in a New York City with no recognizable skyscrapers, streetcars, the base of the CN Tower, and at least two character actors who had minor roles in Slings and Arrows, the movie makes no attempt beyond its dialogue to hide that it was shot in Toronto. Altogether, Shoot ‘Em Up wants to have fun, but even having fun requires effort, especially in a movie, and nobody seems to understand.

Except for Paul Giamatti. He gets it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The New Hampshire Primary is a major plot point. The film also believes that there is a level of bloodshed that could ever push Congress to push gun control measures.

How Did It Do?
Shoot ‘Em Up flopped. On a comparatively modest budget of $39 million, it grossed only $26.8 million, slaughtered in part by the contemporary wide release of 3:10 to Yuma. Would-be camp auteur Michael Davis, who already had five pictures under his belt, never wrote or directed a feature again. However, the film was well-received with a 67% fresh rating on RT and has developed something of a cult following.

Next Time: I Know Who Killed Me

Advertisements

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

bourne_ultimatum_ver4

The Bourne Ultimatum
Dir. Paul Greengrass
Premiered July 25, 2007

At this point you are probably wondering why there are so many goddamn Part Threes in 2007. The answer is cliché, but true: 9/11 changed everything.

Mainly, 9/11 instantly and dramatically altered what moviegoing audiences wanted to see. That cleared a path of a bunch of new franchises to take root, and few were as heavily influenced by the attacks, in either their storytelling or their success, than the Bourne films. Originally scheduled for a premiere just two weeks after the attacks, Universal Studios postponed The Bourne Identity all the way back to June 2002 and ordered the film’s third act to undergo major rewrites and re-shoots (the nature of these changes has never been specified, but it’s known that both director Doug Liman and star Matt Damon fought to keep them to a minimum).

Universal worried that audiences in the aftermath of the attacks would react harshly to the film’s unsanitized, emotionally-rooted approach to Hollywood action; but it’s easy to understand why they instead flocked to it: like other unlikely blockbusters of the time– Training Day, Black Hawk Down– The Bourne Identity validated Americans’ raw nerves like few of its contemporaries ever could. Following the exploits of Jason Bourne (Damon), an amnesiac who discovers he’s a near-superhuman CIA assassin and tries to unlock his past memories while being variously jerked around by the Company, The Bourne Identity and its sequel The Bourne Supremacy successfully split the difference between the low-down dirty spycraft of John Le Carré and the photogenic high adventure of Bond movies, and capitalized on western audiences’ growing disillusionment with the US Government.

Oddly the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, overlaps with the ending of the second: with Bourne having exposed his former handler and proven his innocence of a recent murder to CIA middle-manager Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), Bourne begins to remember his tortuous training at the hands of a sadistic doctor (Albert Finney). At the same time, a British journalist (Paddy Considine) begins receiving classified documents regarding Bourne’s training program, leading CIA analyst Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) to assume Bourne is the source of the leak. Thus the company goes after Bourne, who begins looking for the real source to find some answers, joining forces with sometime acquaintance Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) along the way.

While the Bourne Collection, as the films have been creatively dubbed, may have once stood alone for its emphasis on character and heart, the series remained exemplary for its blocking and camera work: from the very start, Damon made a special effort to do as many of his own stunts as possible, and rather than conceal his abilities using handheld camerawork, director Paul Greengrass uses it to put you in Bourne’s shoes while making sure you also get the best view when it’s time to get dangerous. And The Bourne Ultimatum gives the series its longest, most interesting, and most iconic chase/fight sequence.

I was ready to declare this film a highlight of the year, maybe in the top 30 so far. But then something happened: I stopped caring. There’s no moment where this happens; the premise just wears out its welcome. Bourne’s struggle to uncover and atone for his past is compelling on its own, but not compelling enough for three whole movies. The Bourne Ultimatum shakes things up by having its hero’s efforts consistently fail, but it’s about time he had a new goal.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The Eurostar terminates at Waterloo Station. And albeit this is better represented in the first film, the Bourne series is practically defined by its inter-Cold War Pax Europaea setting.

How Did It Do?
The Bourne Ultimatum was a smash hit, grossing $442.8 million against a $110 million budget to become the eleventh-biggest movie of 2007. Critics too were mostly positive, earning a 93% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, though a parsing of reviews suggests that the story’s parallels to contemporary revelations over CIA torture may have played as much of a role in critical enthusiasm as the picture itself.

As we near the end of a mini-retrospective on part threes, it’s worth noting that only The Bourne Ultimatum this year uses the “bringing it all back home” approach favored by many sequels in other years– by moving the action to New York in the third act, Bourne is taking the adventure to its source, as well as a more familiar location for its target audience. However, none of the Bourne films, while full of sequel hooks, were ever so dependent on the possibility of a sequel that they’d have to keep going, or stop after three.

This proved to be prescient. With the trilogy rule rapidly falling out of fashion, Universal reversed its decision to end the series at Ultimatum. Although Bourne author Robert Ludlum had died in 2001 after writing Ultimatum, his estate authorized author Eric van Lustbader to continue the saga starting with 2004’s The Bourne Legacy. However, the films’ relationships to the novels have always been tenuous, so Universal took only the name and released Legacy in 2012– without Matt Damon. Damon returned in 2016 for Jason Bourne, but neither it nor Legacy were well-received, and the future of the franchise is uncertain.

Next Time: Shoot ‘Em Up

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

simpsons_movieThe Simpsons Movie
Dir. David Silverman
Premiered July 21. 2007

When Minnie and I had just started dating, it became clear that while 5 1/2 years was not that big a difference emotionally, it was pop-culturally. I don’t remember how we got to the subject, but she was shocked when I told her of a time when The Simpsons was not only funny, but controversial: a cartoon that’s not just for kids? That has a biting sense of humor? That shows children not being complete angels? Yes, there was a time when this national institution was denounced by a sitting President. I was there. The Simpsons briefly scandalized a nation of pearl-clutchers, put the nascent Fox Network in the black, brought animation out of the Saturday morning ghetto, helped define a decade, and influenced the humor of a generation.

The idea of a Simpsons movie was almost as old as the show itself. As soon as it became a runaway success, Matt Groening wanted to make a movie, but planned to wait until the show was canceled. Once it became clear however that that wasn’t going to happen, lots of film ideas were proposed and subsequently scrapped. Finally, we got this.

Lake Springfield has become extremely polluted. Luckily, the good people of the town have agreed to clean it up. Meanwhile, Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta), during a rash of even greater selfishness as usual, has adopted a pet pig, dumping the animal’s waste in the lake and causing an ecological disaster so severe that EPA chief Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) has all of Springfield placed under a giant dome. Although the Simpsons themselves manage to escape, Homer has to confront his demons and deal with the damage he’s caused.

The Simpsons Movie had a lot of buzz. Some called it a return to form harkening back to the show’s nineties heyday. Seeing it in the theater, on opening day even, I thought it had its moments, but something, something wasn’t quite right. And it wasn’t Marge (Julie Kavner) swearing, Otto (Harry Shearer) actually smoking pot, or Bart’s (Nancy Cartwright) penis.

First off, the animation. Not only was The Simpsons a great show because of its content, but the animation was a massive upgrade in the age of Nelvana, made by people who loved classic cartoons. The Simpsons Movie has great animation too, most of the time, but it’s not the same: in the tradition of every animated movie since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the look of the film is gratuitously shadowy. There’s also way too much CGI in line-drawing drag. For some reason, the animators decided that “cinematic” means lots of sweeping tracking shots, which only accentuates this lazy trick.

Second, the story. The Simpsons Movie tries to have heart, but comes off as hollow. And while it’s much shorter than I remembered, it still has a ton of padding. What enabled The Simpsons to keep towering over its imitators was that the its sense of humor, be it snarky, silly, or sweet, came directly from the situations and characters; the movie, meanwhile, is a buffet of non-sequitur asides, cameos, and dated cultural references. Yeah, the filmmakers tried to get as many of the old writers back for this as they could, but the lingering absences of Sam Simon, Brad Bird, and Conan O’Brien are very much felt in the final product.

Like I said, it definitely has its moments, especially in the third act, but with all the problems weighing it down, The Simpsons Movie ends up just on the mediocre side of good.

Maybe the problem is that we no longer needed a Simpsons movie. Not only was the show still on the air in 2007, having long squandered the goodwill generated by its first eight seasons and thus eliminating any thrill to be had from getting new Simpsons content, but the world at large had changed. 2007 wasn’t just a great year for film, it was also the year television came of age; that DVD and high definition enabled the medium to become a much more unique and powerful experience; and in which the longstanding elitist stigma against TV could be undone, replaced by a world in which even old classics could get their due. Maybe The Simpsons Movie didn’t need to be good because we already live in a world that The Simpsons helped create.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Aside from the aforementioned dated references, President Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t Governor of California at the time, which was funny in 2003 when he took office, but immediately became boring old news. It’s especially weird here, as The Simpsons already has a Schwarzenegger analogue in Rainier Wolfcastle. Regardless, this movie is convinced that Arnold Schwarzenegger being in politics is inherently funny. He’s voiced by Harry Shearer, and judging by the humor on Shearer’s old radio show, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole conceit was his idea.

Additional Notes
One thing this movie does have going for it is that Ned Flanders comes off as a decent human being. On the show, Flanders began as a freakishly perfect foil for Homer before devolving into a caricature of right-wing American Christian fundamentalism as the show’s quality rapidly declined. Here, Homer’s self-absorption and callousness drives Bart to embrace Ned as an alternative father figure, and you know what? It’s genuinely touching, even if he ends up as the butt of a joke. I’m glad to see that Ned back again.

If you’re still looking for some of that classic Simpsons flavor, I have a couple of recommendations:

  1. The Simpsons: Hit and Runa video game based off Grand Theft Auto that makes great use of the giant world that the show built, and really captures the original’s smart sense of humor. It was released on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC, and can be found pretty easily and cheaply online.
  2. The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios (Hollywood and Florida). Brought in to replace Back to the Future: The Ride, this was also written by creators of the show, gave Star Tours a run for its money with the intensity of its simulation, and delights in skewing and celebrating the theme park experience just as the classic show both skewed and celebrated television.
  3. Most Simpsons comics are actually pretty lame, but keep an eye out for the annual Halloween comics, Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror. Of course, The Simpsons does Halloween like no one else, but these were written and illustrated by guest comic artists who clearly love the show. There are paperback collections of these available from Bongo Comics.

How Did It Do?
It is with great shock that I report that The Simpsons Movie, a decade removed from the peak popularity and cultural relevance of both its source material and the medium of hand-drawn animation as a whole, grossed $527.1 million against a $75 million budget, making it the sixth highest-grossing animated film up to that point, the second highest-grossing traditionally animated film ever, and the eighth highest grosser of the year.

What’s more, the film earned a stellar 88% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. Roger Ebert interestingly expressed surprise that more critics didn’t find the film “good but not great,” despite his own enjoyment. This is interesting because one hesitates to suggest that The Simpsons Movie is a staple of the Simpsons oeuvre, and those critical voices who did find it “good but not great” came almost exclusively from the burgeoning field of online professional critics– i.e. people who grew up with The Simpsons.

Doug Walker once said that a great filmmaker should give people something they didn’t know they wanted; by contrast, The Simpsons Movie, like the considerably worse but nonetheless comparable Star Wars prequels, was content to fulfill the expectations of the moment purely by existing.

Next Time: The Bourne Ultimatum

Postal (2007)

postal

Postal
Dir. Uwe Boll
Premiered at the Fantasia Festival July 21, 2007

Spoiler warning.

After making In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Uwe Boll decided he was finally ready to make a comedy film showing critics who’s boss.

I guess.

Postal, based on and having nothing to do with the video game of the same name, opens with the touching story of two 9/11 hijackers who decide not to destroy the World Trade Center after learning that heaven is running out of virgins, but are stopped by heroic passengers and accidentally crash into the South Tower.

Take that, thought police.

The virgin shortage has turned out to be a huge problem, as Osama bin Laden (actually an American actor in the pocket of the US government, played by Larry Thomas) needs to find new ways to motivate his followers to blow themselves up. At the same time, Florida cult leader Uncle Dave (Dave Foley) owes money to the IRS (because Boll doesn’t know that religions don’t pay taxes in the US) and needs a big score to keep living a life of 24/7 blowjobs.

Welcome to the real world, jackass. Uwe Boll ain’t part of your system.

Also, there’s this guy (Zack Ward) who can’t find a job, lives in a trailer park, and has a morbidly obese wife who cheats on him, decides to contact Uncle Dave (who is his actual uncle) looking for help. Uncle Dave and the Taliban– Boll thinks they’re the same organization as Al Qaeda– both come up with the same idea: steal a limited supply of talking plush dolls of a children’s character called Krotchy, a literal cock and balls, and sell them on eBay at exorbitant prices. In the process of doing this, they kidnap “international superstar” Verne Troyer, who curses a lot and it’s supposed to be funny because he’s a little person or something.

Unfortunately, the Taliban also want the Krotchy dolls because each one contains a vial of Bird Flu that they hope will wipe out the infidels. Also, Uncle Dave’s true believer sidekick (Chris Coppola) wants to unleash the Bird Flu in order to fulfill a biblical prophecy to end all life on earth and also rape Verne Troyer with a thousand monkeys.

Triggered.

He also cameos as himself in a scene where he’s congratulated for “turning video games into hit movies,” and then expresses his passions for Nazi gold and child molestation.

Goodness me. I am beside myself with fury. Grr.

David Huddleston and Seymour Cassel occasionally talk shit at the movie. Also, it turns out that one of Dave’s henchwomen was only pretending to be mentally impaired. The movie ends with the US being nuked by China, the Postal Guy blowing up his wife and all of her fat flesh falling over town before the bombs fall. Bush and bin Laden skip into the distance and quote Casablanca. Death to America.

Problem?

This is Uwe Boll’s idea of comedy: constantly trying to shock, and always failing because there’s obviously no point to any of it. I should be infuriated by everything I see, but it’s so diffuse and random that I can’t be. Boll makes fun of 9/11, engages in some trutherism, is obsessed with morbidly obese women, doesn’t know the difference between Hindus and Muslims, and figuratively cracks wise about how panhandlers (like the one here played by Michael Paré) are all obviously rich and trying to scam you (probably seeing himself in the latter). But I mean, he doesn’t really. He’s just trying to get a rise out of you, and making no effort whatsoever, so who really gives a shit?

I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
In addition to everything previously mentioned, Osama says “I just wish I knew how to quit you.”

How Did It Do?
By 2007, Uwe Boll was no longer content to challenge his critics (at least the ones who couldn’t plausibly beat him) to boxing matches. Instead, he merely recorded an extended rant where he declared himself cinema’s “only genius” and referred to several other, more successful filmmakers as “fucking retards,” before quickly claiming that he didn’t mean it when said filmmakers responded. Technically speaking, this video was the bulk of Postal’s advertising.

Postal never received a proper release in the US, and Boll responded by claiming political persecution. The film grossed $146,741 against $15 million budget, earned a 7% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and was nominated for multiple Razzies. Additionally, the German tax loophole that enabled him to make movies closed, and while he hasn’t totally gone away, the salad days were good and over.

Never Forget.

Next Time: The Simpsons Movie

Hairspray (2007)

hairspray_ver12

Hairspray
Dir. Adam Shankman
Premiered July 13, 2007

I really wish I hadn’t wasted the Lindsay Ellis quote on Transformers, because if one film encapsulates recursive nostalgia, it is Hairspray. There we were in the 2000s, being nostalgic for the 80s, being nostalgic for the 60s (not to be confused with the much bigger, more nuanced wave of 1960s nostalgia in which we find ourselves now).

As far as I can tell, Hairspray is a divisive film. My roommate prefers the remake, my girlfriend prefers the original. One review I read claimed that it fulfilled John Waters’ lofty ambitions with an adequate budget, which suggests the reviewer had no familiarity whatsoever with John Waters’ career. Needless to say, I’m firmly of the opinion that Waters did it best, and I suspect most of you will feel the same.

Let’s talk about the original. In Baltimore in 1962, high schooler Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) dreams of performing as a dancer on the local music program The Corny Collins Show. Although she’s poor and overweight, her enthusiasm and skill get her on the air and win over her skeptical parents (Jerry Stiller and Divine), but her immersion into the local music scene also brings her onto the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, leading her to run afoul of mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her segregationist allies.

Of course, director John Waters was cashing in on the then-current wave of 1960s pop nostalgia, but he gave it a refreshingly personal touch; whereas most films of its kind pilfered memories of a bygone New York or California, Hairspray was inspired by Waters’ own teen years in Baltimore, imbuing both a sweetness and a satirical bite that the mainstream of Hollywood happily avoided.

The original Hairspray works because John Waters is just a cool, funny guy. Any remake that didn’t involve his creative vision would have been inferior, but it gets worse. The Hairspray of 2007 is, in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a film adaptation of a musical adaptation of the original, presided over by Adam Shankman, director of such films as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, and The Pacifier.

Shankman’s involvement is hardly the only trade down. In place of the late, great drag queen Divine, or even her Broadway counterpart Harvey Fierstein, Tracy’s mother Edna is played by John Travolta, adding some Eddie Murphy prosthetics and a terrible Baltimore accent on top of his usual awkwardness; and whereas Jerry Stiller was born to play somebody’s dad, Christopher Walken wasn’t. The whole supporting cast is like that; while John Waters peppered his film with lots of unknowns, including actual teenagers, and a smattering of hipster icons, this version is distractingly star-studded.

As soon as the film started, I felt condescended to. The opening song “Good Morning Baltimore” establishes the setting as loudly and unnecessarily as possible. The original songs in general are typical 2000s-Broadway: canned, generic, forgettable. The story is similar: why have nuance and subtext when the movie can just tell you how to feel at a hundred decibels? I realize that this is a problem innate to musical adaptations, but the problem is there, and it hurts the film.

But it doesn’t stop there. In the 1988 film, Tracy is transferred into Special Ed, where they also send the black kids. In this version, they all just end up in detention. The original wasn’t exactly edgy in its depiction of the time period, so I’m genuinely surprised they found a way to sanitize the story without having stage mom Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn into a dragon for the climax. Furthermore, this film tries way too hard to make Tracy Turnblad sexy. All Ricki Lake needed was the character’s natural confidence and enthusiasm to shine, but Shankman can’t resist putting newcomer Nikki Blonsky in anachronistically subdued makeup and staring at her ass. It’s weird. Altogether, this version of Hairspray proves conclusively that Hollywood doesn’t remotely have John Waters’ balls.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Inasmuch as America in 2007 thought about racism at all, this is a pretty good indicator of how they did: with not-inappropriate snark, but as something firmly in the past, with the perpetrators portrayed as unthreatening cartoons (not that the 1988 movie is without hyperbole, but the racists in that movie feel a hell of a lot more real than anything here). Tracy’s hair is also fashionably deflated for the final number.

Additional Notes

  • Zac Efron is painfully out of place here as Link Larkin; he was pretty clearly hired because of his hype from High School Musical and looks like a theater geek at a Rocky Horror screening.

  • Counterpoint to the above: Elijah Kelley, who shines as Seaweed J. Stubbs, and makes “Run and Tell That” the best song of the bunch.

  • Poor James Marsden. The rare man who gets the “too pretty to be funny” treatment, he’d had to make a shadow career of playing the wrong side in every love triangle. Don’t worry, he’ll get his moment before the year is out, but he deserves more.

  • Several 1988 castmembers appear, but given the circumstances, it comes off more sad than cute.

How Did It Do?
Hairspray grossed $202.5 million against an alleged $75 million budget. It also received a galling 91% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and you can see why when you read those reviews. The first one on the page, from NPR’s Bob Mondello, gives a pretty representative critique when he praises the film’s willingness to fully embrace the traditional musical format, in contrast to those like Chicago, Dreamgirls, or Once, which couch their musicality in some larger conceit. In doing this, Hairspray was able to appeal both to novelty and nostalgia.

Unbelievably, the film’s success led New Line to commission a wholly original sequel with Waters himself writing, Shankman coming back to direct, and with a desperately played-out premise about the 60s being An Important and Exciting Time. Even more amazingly, this only fell through because Travolta refused to do a sequel. Distributor New Line Cinema then played with the idea to adapt Waters’ other musical, Cry-Baby. However, New Line was, as we will later discuss with The Golden Compass, on the verge of bankruptcy as well as under heavy fire for fraudulent (but somehow still legal) accounting practices, so that went nowhere.

Next Time: Postal

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

i-now-pronounce-you-chuck-and-larry-poster-2

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Dir. Dennis Dugan
Premiered July 12, 2007

Larry Valentine (Kevin James) and Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) are firefighters and good friends. Recently widowed, Larry wants to amend his pension so that his two children can be the beneficiaries if he dies on the job. After learning that he can’t change beneficiaries without a major life event (his wife’s death apparently doesn’t count because he waited to long after to do the paperwork; in real life, absolutely none of this is legally necessary), Larry saves Chuck’s life on the job, and asks Chuck to return the favor by entering into a fraudulent domestic partnership, a legal status invented as a half-measure by some US States when gay marriage was still new and scary.

Initially hoping to just sign some papers and get away with their scheme, they soon discover that the City of New York is investigating them for fraud, and have to keep up appearances by getting a full marriage in Canada. Of course, Chuck and Larry are varying shades of homophobic: Chuck’s a raging lothario, and while Larry’s more kindhearted, he still worries that his young son might be gay based on his interest in song and dance. But under the spotlight of the macho fire department, they begin to open their hearts.

If that plot sounds even remotely serviceable, it’s because this wasn’t always a Happy Madison production. Patch Adams director Tom Shadyac began developing the project in 1999, with Nicolas Cage and Will Smith starring, and commissioned a screenplay from Barry Fanaro that was then re-written by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, who brought us Election and Sideways. Payne’s films are famous for their dark but accessible humor, and even if their version would probably have been okay at best, a surprising amount of their signature style comes through, especially in the first act. Unfortunately, it is negated at every moment by the myriad changes made when Sandler’s Happy Madison outfit took over production.

Like 2004’s 50 First Dates, Happy Madison’s additions to the script are immediately identifiable, wildly at odds with the original tone and sensibility, and betray a strange fixation with butch middle-aged women. Unlike that film, the additions directly undercut the film’s message, and insert a buffet of bizarre, bigoted ideas.

Yes, Chuck and Larry are supposed to be offputting in their homophobia, but that arc doesn’t make sense if everyone else feels the same way as they do. A major plot point revolves around a city inspector’s (Steve Buscemi) doubts that the two are a real couple because their garbage isn’t stereotypical enough. Larry’s ambiguous son runs screaming from the image of a nude woman. “Pitching” and “catching” are treated as mutually exclusive, including by gay characters who, inasmuch as they appear at all, are mostly depicted as predatory and/or shrieking flamers straight out of a forgotten Carter-era sitcom.

The result of this mishmash of ideas is a film that constantly tries to have its cake and eat it too. Nearly every scene begins by attempting to make a joke at the expense of Chuck and Larry’s ignorance, but it’s inevitably followed up with some hoary old cliché that only confirms that ignorance. I’m no handwringing PC obsessive; they could have easily made a dark but crowdpleasing comedy about gay marriage without bending over backwards to assure the viewers that they think dem homos are gross too, but instead they did exactly that. That’s not even getting into Rob Schneider’s random yellowface routine, which makes Mickey Rooney turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s look nuanced and respectful.

But you know this. It’s a Happy Madison picture. It exists to exist. You know what’s in it. You know who’s in it. We’ve all reached that point, sometime after Happy Gilmore, when we realized this shit wasn’t funny anymore. For me, it was the abominable Eight Crazy Nights, though I wasn’t totally honest with myself about it until Anger Management. As a result, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry feels more perfunctory than any bad comedy I’ve seen on this project. And now it’s done.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Gay marriage isn’t legal in New York yet. “Fierce” is a normal adjective. And in the most 2000s flourish of all, there’s a cameo by MySpace celebrity/future nonwhite white supremacist Tila Tequila as part of an all-Asian harem of Hooters waitresses.

Additional Notes

  • This is the second movie in 2007 to culminate in a courtroom scene wherein Adam Sandler was the defendant.

  • While putting out a fire at a diner, Chuck discovers the marijuana cigarette that started the fire. Completely intact.

  • Chuck’s and Larry’s captain is played by Dan Aykroyd. I know I was harsh on John Cusack for his career trajectory, but Aykroyd makes him look like Tom Hanks.

  • Also in the film: poor, poor Jessica Biel, following up her performance in Next as Chuck’s and Larry’s lawyer, a woman who speaks out against discrimination, but still expects Chuck to be her token sassy gay friend. That could have worked. I cannot tell you how bizarre it feels to talk about this movie as something that had potential.

  • Jesus Christ, Sandler loves Rudy Giuliani.

How Did It Do?
Incredibly, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry grossed $186.1 million against an $85 million budget. Unusually for a non-Woody Allen comedy of the time, it benefitted greatly from box office returns outside the United States, especially Germany. Even more astonishing, the film received a begrudging, deferential endorsement from the gay media watchdog group GLAAD, then on its to becoming a punchline on par with PETA.

But that feels beside the point; critical consensus was always going to determine Chuck and Larry’s legacy, and the critics were unmerciful: 14% on RottenTomatoes, criticized for its depiction of basically everyone while also receiving perverse praise from those same critics for sucking beyond social offense. Naturally, Armond White, the notoriously contrarian pseudo-intellectual critic then working for the New York Press, who declared it a “modern classic” with “more laughs per minute than any movie since Hot Fuzz.” Get the fuck out of my review.

Next Time: Hairspray

License to Wed (2007)

mv5bmti5mtm2mjq5nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwotc3mdc0mq-_v1_

License to Wed
Dir. Ken Kwapis
Premiered July 3, 2007

Robin Williams was a huge presence in my childhood, towering over the 1990s with his unique combination of rapid-fire schtick and gentleness. But Williams was kind of like bacon:  put him in an existing project and you’d get something memorable and fun, but try to build it around him and you’d get something obnoxious and gross. Let’s be honest: for every great performance he put into Aladdin or Good Will Hunting, there was at least one boneheaded star vehicle.

In the mid-2000s, Hollywood attempted to revive the patented Robin Williams Formula with three critically panned bombs. 2006 presented two flops from two Barrys: Barry Sonnenfeld’s RV and Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year; but the last and most widely reviled of these was 2007’s License to Wed.

Twentysomething entrepreneur Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) has just accepted a marriage proposal from boyfriend Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) on the condition that they get married in the church built by her grandfather. Unfortunately, that church is presided over by the Reverend Frank Dorman (Williams), who will only marry the two on the condition that they submit to his wildly inappropriate marriage prep course. Ben is understandably put off by Frank’s behavior, while Sadie is mostly blinded by affection for her childhood pastor.

Reverend Frank is awful, constantly humiliating the young couple under the guise of testing the strength of the relationship. He has his child protégé plant a bug in their apartment, makes them take care of remote-control robot babies, and tries to get them to fight each other; and while the film seems to acknowledge Frank’s intrusiveness, it also takes his side. A more mature film might have portrayed Frank as a pushy but well-meaning figure, like a coach, but like previous Williams vehicle Flubber, the script takes things too far and makes him a rude, controlling bully.

More than anything, License to Wed reminded me of the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson film Anger Management. But instead of a rousing speech by Rudy Giuliani at Yankee Stadium (yes), this film ends in a version of Jamaica where the majority of men are Rastafarian and marijuana is legal and can be smoked on airplanes. There’s no point to any of this except to plug Sandals Resorts. I’m not the kind of guy who cries colonialism at things, but there’s no part of that digression that doesn’t gross me out.

You might surmise from that description that the movie is at least interestingly twisted, like an A-list version of the Christsploitation/unintentional horror film Old Fashioned, but you would be wrong. The script is full of moments that have the cadence of a joke, but no actual humor. The situations are tiresome; Ben’s typical dissatisfied married friend (DeRay Davis) makes me yearn for Paul Rudd in Knocked Up. And rather than let Williams improvise, as in the old days, his dialogue reads like a screenwriter’s plodding impression of Robin Williams improvising. Altogether, the writing, direction, and performances are so passionless and perfunctory as to rescue the film from the outright disgust that its premise would suggest. License to Wed may not be the worst 2007 film I’ve seen thus far, but it is unquestionably the least.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Sadie’s older sister Lindsey (Christine Taylor) is unemployed and lives with her parents, and thus the film treats this as evidence that she is a selfish, contemptible dullard.

How Did It Do?
Despite being the last attempt to revive the long-expired Robin Williams Formula, License to Wed was the most successful, albeit not successful enough to warrant further efforts, as it grossed $69.3 million against a $35 million budget. The critical consensus was atrocious, earning a 7% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, a degree of revulsion typically associated with incompetent, wildly misplaced ideas.

Mandy Moore had weathered bad movies before, and would continue to do so in her career, at least until landing the starring role in Disney Animation’s comeback Tangled. Her co-star Krasinski would not be so lucky; limited by years of more work on The Office and unsubstantiated rumors that he deliberately avoided villainous character-type roles would confine him to a handful of indie movies like Away We Go and Promised Land before going deeper into voice work. Robin Williams, meanwhile, continued working, most notably in Bobcat Goldthwait’s revelatory dramedy World’s Greatest Dad and short-lived CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones before his tragic death in 2014.

But the strangest career outcome has to be that of Ken Kwapis. Like Krasinski and several of the supporting cast, Kwapis worked regularly on The Office, but also had a long film career that could be described as “impressively dubious.” This would continue as he went on to direct He’s Just Not That Into You, Big Miracle, and to my special distaste, Robert Redford’s woefully butchered adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

Next Time: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 So Far

As I remain confident that 2007 will be my longest retrospective, it seems wise to recap what we’ve dealt with so far– I’ve already covered 72 films in the first half of the year, compared to 57 for all of 1977, and an anticipated total of 65 for the next year I plan to cover.

Correction:
In my review of Spider-Man 3, I wrote that Sony rebooted the Spider-Man franchise due to their own disappointment with the film. In fact, Raimi quit when his requests for greater creative control over Spider-Man 4 were ignored. Nevertheless, starting the entire franchise from scratch was a strangely extreme course of action.

The Best:

10. Disturbia
While dated in places, what could have been a shallow retread of Rear Window is a fun, suspenseful thriller anchored by the performances of Shia LaBoeuf and David Morse.

9. Sicko
Carefully balancing real-life horror stories with his trademark sarcastic humor, Sicko sees left-wing documentarian Michael Moore make one of his best films with a passionate moral argument for universal healthcare

8. Death at a Funeral
Frank Oz’s unapologetic (and divisive) British farce is a must-watch for lovers of UK humor, whether you end up liking it or not. The best kind of dumb comedy.

7. Paranoid Park
While not always a pleasant film, Gus Van Sant’s austere teen-thriller succeeds in its purpose and perfectly captures the look and feel of 2000s America.

6. Sunshine
Danny Boyle’s eye-popping blend of slow-burn horror and old-fashioned hard science fiction is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart, anchored by great performances, stunning visuals, and an uncommon commitment to its concept.

5. No Country for Old Men
Suspensefully paced, gloriously shot, and not without a sense of humor, Joel and Ethan Coen’s stark Texas thriller/comeback to greatness ranks among their all-time best films.

4. Grindhouse
Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s campy double-feature is a deliriously fun homage to b-movies and a must-see for aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles in general.

3. Ratatouille
Brad Bird and Pixar’s charming, funny, and endlessly gorgeous contribution to 2007 is one of their finest, and a family film for the ages.

2. Hot Fuzz
Edgar Wright’s loving send-up of Hollywood cop movies is a joy for fans of the genre and newcomers alike, and a breath of fresh air in the age of grimdark.

1. Zodiac
With the help of James Vanderbilt’s brilliant script, David Fincher delivers a darkly fascinating true-crime thriller with an unconventional cast and painstaking attention to detail. My all-time favorite movie.

Honorable mentions: The Lookout, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, King of California

The Worst:

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
A joyless, convoluted mess, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End should be seen a cautionary tale about the dangers of a franchise buying its own hype.

9. Transformers
Michael Bay’s nihilistic headache is an insult to moviegoers.

8. Epic Movie
Yet another installment in Seltzer and Friedberg’s shallow parodies misses the point of its own genre and goes for cheap, short-lived laughs that may not actually exist.

7. Good Luck Chuck
The epitome of bad comedy in 2007, “romantic comedy” Good Luck Chuck is an astonishingly unappealing vehicle for a leaden Dane Cook at the height of his fame.

6. The Number 23
While Joel Schumacher’s homage to numerological conspiracies was widely derided in its time, The Number 23 is underappreciated as a must-see for lovers of so-bad- it’s-good camp.

5. Georgia Rule
Trying to be a feel-good movie about sexual abuse, Georgia Rule brings a new definition to tone-deafness with the help of an awkward, aimless script and oblivious direction.

4. Wild Hogs
Priding itself on favoring one lazy male stereotype over another, this contractual obligation of a film is an embarrassment to everyone involved.

3. Norbit
Originally, I was numb to Norbit’s insulting stupidity because I knew it was coming. But as time has gone on, my revulsion to it has only grown. How Eddie Murphy expected this ugly, incompetent farce to be a hit is a testament to his lack of self-awareness, with all the unexamined gay subtext that implies.

2. Perfect Stranger
An uncommonly inept pileup of bad decisions, the aggressively retrograde Perfect Stranger is an uncommon embarrassment to all involved.

1. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
The only film in the history of MovieYears that I was unable to finish, In the Name of the King is content to exist for no reason if that means lining the pockets of its beloathed creator.

Next Time: License to Wed

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-movie-poster-style-h

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Dir. David Yates
Premiered June 28, 2007

There are a lot of ways to go about this.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books changed everything. In terms of its influence on commercial literature, it’s Star Wars; it created the very idea of literary blockbusters, and did so at the apex of broadcast television, in an era when people decried the downfall of child literacy. I’m just old enough to remember the kid-lit landscape before Harry Potter, and I actually got a copy of the first book in 1997, right before it took off. The success of the series blew me away back then and it blows me away now.

Of course, nothing that successful can ever be fully divorced from the environment that allowed it to thrive. The Harry Potter books are very much of their time, and became moreso as the series quickly ran out of world to build and settled into a conventional fantasy story. As a result, the later books are heavy with subtext inspired by Rowling’s then-rising star in the background of British politics. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

In the previous film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the dark wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) regained his corporeal form and began to kill again, but only Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has seen him return and lived to tell the tale. Consequently, the bulk of the wizard political establishment refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned, instead foisting the blame on Potter, his mentor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). To make sure that Hogwarts School falls in line, the Ministry of Magic appoints the prissy Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton; see, I told you) to enforce the party line through dozens of draconian restrictions and legally questionable torments. Potter, unable to rely on his usual adult supporters, finds he must lead his classmates if they are to defend themselves in the coming war.

Many Americans, including myself at the time, drew parallels between Umbridge’s reign of terror and the USA PATRIOT ACT of 2001. In retrospect, as well as with further research, it is more of a criticism of the top-down approach to western education of late that has focused on standardized testing, rote theory, and faux-utilitarian disregard for education itself that claims to address the real world but smacks of a caste system; as well as the British tradition of academic corporal punishment. Frankly, this was not the place for it.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a lot going on, some of it good, but for the most part it doesn’t seem that concerned with the overall conflict– or indeed with magic itself. By the film’s climax, characters don’t even have to speak to produce most spells, which henceforth fulfill the role of conventional weapons. The titular Order of the Phoenix mostly comprises established characters and only appears at the beginning and end; to what purpose were they introduced?

Although my issues with the movie mostly originate with the book, I can’t shake my distaste for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Harry Potter series always had an amount of politics in it, taking place in a real-world context, but here it’s placed front and center, at the expense of a pivotal arc that redeems the character of Harry himself.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Dudley Dursley is a chav at peak ringtone. The Ministry of Magic is decorated entirely in black tile.

Additional Notes
One thing that struck me upon rewatching is that Snape’s “good guy” credentials are never an issue, as they had been in the previous books/films. Though he (and the other professors) barely get enough screentime, Snape’s attempts to train Potter to resist Voldemort’s telepathy may be Alan Rickman’s best work in the series.

How Did It Do?
Harry Potter was lucky. Not only was it the type of recognizable property that attracted a built-in audience– hell, it helped start Hollywood’s reliance on such things– the books were also critically-acclaimed enough (and we might also add well-written enough) to avoid a large-scale hatedom like its YA imitators in the years to come.

So when I say that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire grossed $939.9 million against a $150 million budget, and that it was the highest-grossing Potter film up to that point, the only surprise is that it wasn’t the biggest movie of the year; for that, you can thank the ever-inscrutable Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which narrowly beat it in almost every market.

Likewise, the film got a 78% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with the bulk of criticism over bland directing from newcomer David Yates and the questionable choice to adapt the longest Harry Potter book into the shortest movie– two things you may notice I never even bothered addressing. Mostly because I forgot.

Less than a month after the film’s premiere, the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released into bookstores, at midnight, to a carnival-like audiences of mostly older teens. I was one of them: I was a high school senior who attended in the expectation that nothing like this would ever happen again the hope that maybe I would get laid. In short, the fandom had grown up, and although I’m not certain that there hasn’t been a book series to be such an immediate mass-media phenomenon, I don’t know of any since. Maybe there will be, maybe there won’t. But Harry Potter still hasn’t truly gone, and I am certain to return to the franchise in discussing other years.

Next Time: The Best (and Worst) of 2007 So Far

Ratatouille (2007)

ratus1

Ratatouille
Dir. Brad Bird
Premiered June 22, 2007

If 2007 is indeed the best year in movie history, its greatness cannot be measured in dollars. A cursory glance at BoxOfficeMojo reveals that the blockbusters of 2007 are mostly outright garbage, some of which I’ve already reviewed. And while the passion projects that made the year great speak well of the filmmakers and studios that produced them, the same cannot be said of we the audiences: among the top-ten worldwide releases, nine were adaptations, remakes, or sequels.

The lone exception is Ratatouille, the year’s contribution from the great animation studio Pixar. Though Pixar’s glory has begun to fade now, there was a time not long ago when it seemed as if the spirit of Uncle Walt had deserted his own studio and gone to Emeryville.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a young rat with an advanced sense of smell who has accordingly become fond of human society through the art of food. Separated from his family by a disaster of his own making, Remy emerges in Paris, at the doors of the once-revered fine restaurant Gusteau’s. Guided by his imagination of the late chef Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett), Remy endeavors to become a great cook through the assistance of janitor-turned-cook Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano). However, Linguini has a secret not even known to him, and his sudden skills draw the suspicions of current chef Skinner (Ian Holm), and legendarily fussy critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole).

What makes Ratatouille exceptional is not merely its animation, or sense of humor, or heart, though all are exemplary. At a time when Disney had burnt itself out trying to distill goodness into a formula, and rival Dreamworks refused to take itself seriously, Pixar– and especially Brad Bird– gave themselves the freedom to make something new. Something that, like all of Pixar’s best films, isn’t afraid to have heroes who are kind of jerks. Something that could be fun and heartfelt, rather than splitting the difference between two perceived opposites. This is a family film in the truest sense, the same sense as can be said for Nintendo or the Muppets or The Simpsons. I never felt like this movie was made for a different audience from me. And if I were a kid, I’d probably feel the same.

Ratatouille touched me in a way I did not expect. When it was released in theaters, I didn’t remotely get the hype. I believed it could be good for what it was, but truly great cinema? This? The cartoon with the rat who controls a guy like a puppet? To call it cute would be accurate but misleading, and neither the trailer nor my plot summary can do it justice. Communicating how food makes people feel should be impossible in a medium that you can’t taste, and yet Ratatouille succeeds. You simply have to see it.

Additional Notes
If there’s one criticism, I think the kitchen crew besides Linguini and Colette (Janeane Garofalo) kinda get the short end of the stick in terms of characterization. We’re introduced to them, but don’t get much else.

There’s no limit to the praise Michael Giacchino deserves for his score.

How Did It Do?
Ratatouille was one of the biggest successes of the year by every measure one could use to judge a movie’s success. Grossing $620.7 million against a $150 million budget, it was the sixth-biggest movie of the year worldwide. With a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, it was one of the highest-rated wide releases of the year (and that’s saying something). It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, I imagine quite easily, in addition to nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Pixar continued on its hot streak for a few more years, but eventually the rest of the animation world– and the sky-high expectations of critics and hardcore fans– began to catch up.

Next Time: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix