Gone Baby Gone (2007)

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Gone Baby Gone
Dir. Ben Affleck
Premiered at Deauville September 5, 2007

Ben Affleck wasn’t in a great place professionally in 2007. Already overshadowed by collaborator and best friend Matt Damon, Affleck’s 2000s were studded with notorious flops and critically-derided disasters, and got more attention for his romantic partners than for his work. I have no idea what the expectations were for his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, but I’m sure news of his ambitions behind the camera were viewed with skepticism. After the film came out, though? Let’s just say he had a very different career afterward.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone begins with the disappearance of five-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien) in the tight-knit community of Dorchester in Boston. Upset over the lack of progress by police, the girl’s aunt (Amy Madigan) seeks out private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) in the hope that they can find the truth. In their investigations, Kenzie and Gennaro chafe against the police captain in charge of finding lost children (Morgan Freeman), but find an unlikely ally in Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), the iron-willed detective in charge of the case, which exposes mother Helene (Amy Ryan) as a neglectful parent with deeply suspect links to Boston’s underground.

When the investigation is seemingly solved, Kenzie is alerted to another missing child case involving some former suspects in Amanda’s kidnapping, causing Amanda’s case to unravel and threaten Kenzie’s good-natured idealism as he clashes with the cynic Bressant.

Except for his eye for landscapes and passion for his hometown, Gone Baby Gone did not mark Affleck out as a particularly identifiable director. Luckily, he did a damn good job anyway. The film is gorgeous, filling every inch of the screen with an intimate and uncompromising feel for Boston and its people. Affleck’s brother Casey, last seen creeping us out in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, perfectly captures a man who is above the fray but not above the people in it. More than anything, Gone Baby Gone offers a striking moral outlook that is rarely presented in film: that in order to be good, one must uphold the law and work to make a better world.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The date appears in several places. The working classes of Boston resemble Britain’s chavs. Helene proclaims “it feels like 9/11.”

Additional Notes
My word, Gone Baby Gone doesn’t dispell any stereotypes about Boston. Literally every civilian besides Kenzie and Gennaro is presented as a boorish, provincial, violent racist.

Does anyone else see this title and immediately think of the Violent Femmes?

How Did It Do?
Gone Baby Gone grossed $34.6 million against a $19 million budget, a stellar 94% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and netted Amy Ryan an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ben Affleck’s subsequent career as a director yielded The Town and Argo before losing critics and audiences alike with 2016’s Live by Night, ironically another Dennis Lehane adaptation.

Next Time: Nightwatching

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I’m Not There (2007)

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I’m Not There
Dir. Todd Haynes
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007

Right before the advent of Netflix, my mom went through this phase where she would go to Blockbuster and rent the weirdest, most niche DVDs she could find; and one of them was called Palindromes. I’ll spare you the details; look it up if you’re curious, it’s one of those movies that make you wonder in retrospect if you didn’t just imagine it while suffering from the flu; the relevant point is the main character in that movie is played by many different actors. So when I heard about a new film about Bob Dylan that did the same thing, I assumed that it was being helmed by the director of Palindromes, Todd Solondz, and thought nothing more of it until college.

Some five or six years later, I was taking a class at SF State that might as well have been called Music Theory Masturbation for People Who Couldn’t Get Real Classes Because of Austerity Cuts and Massive Embezzlement, and one of the movies we saw was I’m Not There. I was sick the first day of the showing, so I only saw what I thought was the second half, and it was weird. Really weird. But not necessarily bad. It certainly left an impression. And of course, I found out the director was a different Todd, Todd Haynes, whose film Velvet Goldmine I saw years later still in film school and absolutely loved.

Making Velvet Goldmine, Haynes was unable to get the rights to David Bowie’s life story (legal difficulties with popular musicians is something of a tradition for the filmmaker), and so told a fictionalized history of ‘70s glam rock through symbolic figures. I’m Not There had no such legal trouble with its subject, Bob Dylan, and still took the same route– going even further. The film is a rapid-fire anthology of stories about characters embodying different aspects or periods of Dylan’s life, and even individually they are out of order, and seemingly only half complete.

Even if the vignettes are not chronological, they do follow a sort of chronological order, beginning and ending in roughly the same order, each with a distinct cinematic and musical style:

  • 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), being questioned about the nature of fatalism in a Cold-War era interrogation room that may or may not be purgatory. Rimbaud, as well as the film’s narrator (Kris Kristofferson) serve as something of a greek chorus to the rest of the film.

  • An 11-year-old black troubadour calling himself “Woody Guthrie” (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails and sings for the union cause despite living in 1959, until one of his many hosts (Kim Roberts) tells him to sing about his own times. The character is a reference to Dylan’s early fixation with the real Woody Guthrie, as well as his tendency to tell tall tales about his origins– though his portrayal as a poor black child may owe more to Steve Martin.

  • Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a protest singer who abandons his craft after publicly comparing himself to Lee Harvey Oswald, and years later becomes an evangelical pastor and gospel musician. His story is told through the guise of a PBS-style documentary interviewing his friends and colleagues, such as Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), based on Dylan’s real-life friend and rival Joan Baez.

  • Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a young actor who plays Rollins in a 1965 film, through which he meets and marries French painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and becomes an eventual darling of the New Hollywood. The rise and fall of their relationship coincides with and parallels the American war in Vietnam.

  • Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) most closely parallels Dylan’s public image, especially as depicted in the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. Quinn betrays the folk scene by adopting the electric guitar, futzes around England and America alike, goes to groovy parties, feuds with standoffish British journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), and generally resents his supposed position as standard-bearer of America’s youth.

  • Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), having escaped his supposed execution at the hands of lawman Pat Garrett (also Bruce Greenwood) and settled into an anonymous existence in the small town of Riddle, Missouri. Around the time of World War I, Riddle is set to be destroyed by a newfangled public highway, and Garrett is behind it. This segment was inspired by Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Like any anthology film, certain of these stories and characters will be stronger than others. Back in 2007, most were drawn to Jude Quinn, who is the most readily familiar incarnation of Mr. Dylan as popular culture has chosen to remember him, and it got Cate Blanchett and Oscar nomination. Minnie loved Robbie Clark, despite the character’s tenuous connection to Dylan’s body of work, but that’s mostly a testament to Ledger, whose untimely death cost the world a lifetime of great performances. In what I suspect may be an unpopular opinion, I was personally enthralled with Billy the Kid, not least because I’m actually most familiar with Bob Dylan’s quasi-western 1970s output due to my father’s incessant playing of records like Blood on the Tracks and his work with The Band.

Roger Ebert in his review of this film complained that the movie doesn’t give any further insight into Dylan as a person. I think it does– it’s just deeply cynical. Or perhaps Zen. I’m Not There tells the story of a creative genius who can only express that genius through various personas, Peter Sellers-like.

Yet the director doesn’t judge. With Velvet Goldmine, Haynes seemed to view the abandonment of glam rock as a betrayal of a way of life and thinking in favor of a hollow corporate musical environment. Nearly a decade later, a firmly middle-aged Haynes openly mocks such reactionary fandom, such as that which rejected Dylan’s rock stylings as a betrayal of their values. I’m Not There is all about mortality, hence the involvement of Rimbaud. Yet the film’s fatalism is a hopeful one, one which gives nostalgia its due but recognizes the need and indeed the endless possibilities of change.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The narrator calls Vietnam “the longest war in television history.” No longer.

How Did It Do?
I’m Not There flopped, grossing just $11.7 million against a $20 million budget, but was buoyed by a 77% fresh rating on RT to net an Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett (not to be too cynical, but Oscar voters love gender-bending casting just enough to overlook financial failure).

Bob Dylan himself liked the movie quite a bit, praising Haynes’ boldness and willingness to discard factuality in favor of more imaginative storytelling. And although Haynes has gone on to play very well with critics, this is one experiment he has shown no interest in repeating.

Next Time: Gone Baby Gone

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

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The Darjeeling Limited
Dir. Wes Anderson
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007

On a rainy day in the fall of 1998, my mom and I were stuck at an automotive repair shop in Alhambra, watching Charlie Rose on an ancient RCA with bad reception. Rose was interviewing Bill Murray, who I only knew at the time from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Here, though, he was promoting a much darker film called Rushmore. I knew from the clip they showed that my mom wouldn’t take me to see it, but I was equally shocked by Murray’s appearance. His hair was white, and he had a smarmy mustache. I’d never seen him play a dirtbag before, and was intrigued.

For a long time, Wes Anderson’s movies were praised to high heaven while Anderson himself largely went unnoticed. In the summer of 2005, now aged fifteen, a neighbor recommended I watch Rushmore. I did, and loved it, and went online to see what else the director had done. I was flabbergasted. “The Royal Tenenbaums?” I thought. “The Life Aquatic? He made all of these?” As far as I can tell, everybody else seems to have discovered Wes Anderson at the same moment I did, because when school started again, I would often find my classmates talking about him. And just as soon as everybody knew the name Wes Anderson, he became a joke.

That everybody suddenly woke up and realized who Wes Anderson was in 2005 makes a lot of sense, as Anderson himself was on the cutting edge of a whole new aesthetic, twee, that was just gaining traction around that time. The shock of 9/11 had finally worn off, and the decadent, tailored faux-squalor of the 2000s left many young people subconsciously seeking out an alternative, the kind of dignified, nostalgic, ambiguous anytime in which Anderson’s films seemed to take place. This made Anderson very easy to make fun of; his persistent tropes and trademarks are too numerous to name here, but they’re very easy to identify. At the same time, Anderson’s directorial style began filtering into the mainstream and mixing with those of other indie filmmakers to usher in a new brand of preciousness, and an inevitable backlash. It was into this environment that The Darjeeling Limited was released.

Though I can’t prove it, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Anderson made The Darjeeling Limited as a counterpoint to all that. Developed and shot in under a year on a relative shoestring budget while his main project Fantastic Mr. Fox ran behind schedule, The Darjeeling Limited follows three wealthy ne’er-do-well brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman), avoiding real life until eldest Francis (Wilson), following a failed suicide attempt, invites them on a train trip across India. Ostensibly, the self-appointed patriarch has brought them together to broaden their horizons and find inner peace, but really he’s looking for their mother (Anjelica Houston), who’s been missing since the death of their father a year earlier.

If that makes the film sound plot-heavy, it’s not. For the most part, the brothers struggle with their insecurities and estrangement, all while abusing India’s lax drug laws and alienating everyone they meet– until forced to leave the titular train and find their own way. It’s at this point where the Wes Anderson formula breaks down; the director self-consciously mixes and mashes his stylistic trademarks until the characters and he himself literally let go of their old baggage.

How Did It Do?
The Darjeeling Limited grossed $35 million against a $17.5 million budget, precisely breaking even. The week of this film’s release, Wes Anderson released a short film called “Hotel Chevalier,” which acts as a sort of prequel to the film, to iTunes. Appropriately, it’s not at all necessary to see it in order to enjoy The Darjeeling Limited, but you might get some extra laughs out of it. This minisode format was semi-popular at the time as a little extra for TV shows (most notably Lost and The Office), but Anderson never did it again, and the practice largely died out by the end of the 2000s. Also, in the short, Natalie Portman gets naked. Wes Anderson gets me.

While The Darjeeling Limited is often regarded today as Anderson’s least twee film, it wasn’t received that way at the time. Although it received a solid 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, only Anderson’s prior, initially much more alienating The Life Aquatic had received worse reviews. Many positive critiques referred to The Darjeeling Limited as comfortable and inessential, while the bulk of negative responses found it suffocatingly unadventurous and self-indulgent, the product of a man refusing to evolve at any cost.

Very few, even among its boosters, were able to see the direction that it represented: rather than abandon his signature style, Anderson was taking it in a more worldly, less detached direction. Production on the film completed shortly before star Owen Wilson’s real-life suicide attempt; for many, this may have brought an emotional intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been lacking, and which Anderson has continued to make use of in his more recent, even more beloved films Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Somewhere is an alternate universe where Wes Anderson is much the same as M. Night Shyamalan once was, but it isn’t this one. And The Darjeeling Limited certainly has something to do with that.

Next Time: I’m Not There

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Dir. Andrew Dominik
Premiered at Venice September 2, 2007

Nations have a weird habit of romanticizing the savage past, even when there are people around who still remember the truth. There is perhaps no better example of this than Jesse James (Brad Pitt), a late-19th century outlaw/terrorist who was feared and hated right until he died.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the story of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), an ardent, near obsessive fan of Jesse who joins the James gang with his brother (Sam Rockwell), only for the eldest of the group (Sam Shepard) to declare that it’s time to give up the life of an outlaw. As the gang disintegrates, Jesse’s increasing outbursts and loosening grip on reality becomes too much even for Ford, who takes refuge as an inside man for the state of Missouri and kills James in cold blood.

At first, Ford is a hero, and spends the next year recreating the assassination on the Broadway stage. However, as the terror of of the James gang fades into memory, public opinion gradually and mysteriously turns Jesse into a folk icon, and Ford into a wanton murderer. Finding himself in constant danger from the drunken mob, Ford retreats from public life.

The Assassination of Jesse James thus highlights a crucial and overlooked element of life: that death is part of what defines us as individuals, and that it is something over which we have the least control. James is endlessly self-mythologizing. Much like another cinematic “outlaw” from a 2007 film, the Zodiac killer, James can only speak of himself through the filter of popular media, and indulges Ford’s borderline-infatuation to the point of self-destruction. It is only fitting then that, Caesar like, his untimely and violent death makes him immortal.

In a year full of incredible cinema, and one chock full of westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nevertheless a highlight. The cinematography and locations bring new life into the past, while simultaneously making it feel ancient, crusted like a ghost town. The pacing is similarly mythic. You can feel the slowness, yet welcome it as you might in a Werner Herzog film.

How Did It Do?
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford flopped, grossing $15 million against a $30 million budget; just $3.9 million from the US at that. In fairness, the film did receive two much-deserved Oscar Nominations, Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins and Best Supporting Actor for Casey Affleck (though he was really the lead), but it nevertheless falls very much into the Zodiac/Sunshine category of movies that are praised as classics by nearly everyone who’s seen them since but were completely lost in the shuffle when they came out– such is the danger when a new classic gets released every couple weeks. To whit, it got a respectable but unexceptional 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes– negative reviews condemning it as a slow, pretentious vanity project for Pitt– but to this day, people absolutely love to write about it with a level of significance that nobody in 2007 could have imagined. To me, a film’s quality is measurable not just by its surface merits, but its ability to stick in the mind long after having seen it, and there are few clearer examples than this.

Next Time: The Darjeeling Limited

Juno (2007)

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Juno
Dir. Jason ReitmanPremiered at Telluride September 1, 2007

  • October 20-22, 2007: I go to see The Darjeeling Limited twice. Each time, the trailer for Juno plays beforehand. It feels very derivative, but I don’t know of what specifically. Very of its time.

  • December 7, 2007: My english teacher Mr. Stremel comes to class after seeing Juno with his wife and vents his spleen over how cloying and precious it was, in contrast to the far more realisitc Superbad. In spite of Juno’s critical acclaim, his judgment is enough to put me off seeing it with my mom.

  • July 18, 2008: My girlfriend tries to get me to watch Juno. I can’t get past the first ten minutes, which look and sound like Napoleon Dynamite had a stroke. I convince her to give Superbad a try, because even though I’m starting college, my english teacher’s rant will stay with me forever.

Needless to say, I didn’t go into this movie with high expectations. The first ten minutes are, as previously mentioned, awful, and just about every sketch comedy group you can think of (which had multiplied online during the 2007-08 WGA strike, when regular television was suspended and Juno coincidentally premiered) had made fun of its then-fashionable kitsch aesthetic and especially screenwriter Diablo Cody’s bizarre cinematic patois: a mix of Valley Girl, 1930s hey-Joe-whaddya-know rhyming slang, Gilmore Girls-esque rapid fire namedropping, and twisty David Milch iambic pentameter.

But then I watched more than ten minutes, and all of that– all of it– gradually tapered off. Don’t be mistaken, the movie has issues, but I ended up not hating it like I expected.

The titular Juno (Ellen Page) is a precocious 16-year-old proto-hipstrix who discovers she’s pregnant after deflowering her close friend and maybe-boyfriend Pauly Bleeker (Michael Cera). Dissuaded from having an abortion because of the general ambience of the clinic (?), she decides to give the baby up for adoption to thirtysomething couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). Juno bonds with Mark due to their mutual interest in music and film, leading Mark to revisit his own youth and question whether he’s ready to become a father.

Juno was notably the debut screenplay of Diablo Cody, whose past as a stripper made her kind of a paternalistic darling of Hollywood. Although her subsequent work become progressively better, the script for Juno feels much like a rough draft (see the first few pages of too-cool-for-school jargon), with certain issues and subplots feeling underdeveloped, particularly the ambivalent relationship between Juno and Bleeker. It’s kinda surprising that this won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps, much like a more recent movie everyone liked but me, people were simply shocked by its originality alone.

At the same time, I don’t think director Jason Reitman totally got what Cody was going for. Juno is far more erudite and pop culture-literate than any teenager with an actual social life– I never knew any 16-year-old to fawn over Dario Argento. So why does a movie about someone who loves punk and hates wimpy music have a soundtrack full of tweer-than-twee Kimya Dawson songs?

Altogether, Juno is a confused and not fully fleshed-out film that, while not inherently bad– there’s nothing offensive or eye-rolling here– is littered with small flakes of obnoxiousness. It’s okay. It’s no classic. I’d rank it about even with another 2007 film that dealt with pregnancy and has aged poorly– Knocked Up.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The soundtrack, the animated opening, the whole hand-drawn aesthetic in general.

Additional Notes

  • Wow, the Kinks were really popular for movie soundtracks in 2007: Hot Fuzz, The Darjeeling Limited, and this all featured multiple songs by them.

  • I continue to enjoy that all pregnancies in fiction coincide perfectly with the school year/network television season.

  • Jason Bateman’s character makes his living writing commercial jingles, a job that basically no longer exists but enjoys unaccountable staying power in film and television.

  • This movie did not have enough of J.K. Simmons as Juno’s father. I’m a sucker for goofy but goodhearted dads. My favorite character from Freaks and Geeks is Harry.

How Did It Do?
Juno came out strong, earning a 94% Fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. Grossing $231.4 million against a $7.5 million budget, it just barely outperformed its spiritual counterpart Knocked Up. The significance of this cannot be underestimated; it premiered at Telluride, but let’s be real, this movie is exactly what you think of when I say “Sundance,” and even Sundance movies that win Oscars aren’t big moneymakers. Juno was a fucking blockbuster.

Naturally, this led to some hilarious attempts at moral panic.

First, Juno became at least the third major motion picture that year to get shoehorned into the American debate over abortion. I don’t usually bring up iMDB reviews here, but even the press at the time highlighted a rash of critics that compared Juno unfavorably to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is exactly as stupid as when John Simon compared Return of the Jedi unfavorably to Tender Mercies: technically correct, but nevertheless idiotic.

Then, rumors spread like wildfire that Juno’s popularity had sent teen pregnancy rates skyrocketing due to the glamorization here. I can’t help but suggest that perhaps teenage girls are not the biggest audience for this movie; or that the type of girls who would really like this movie aren’t at a high risk for pregnancy; or that mentally competent teenagers would willfully impregnate themselves; or that they would do it as a fashion statement; or that a movie about a teenage girl who contemplates abortion, gives up a baby she can’t take care of, and ruins a marriage doesn’t glorify jack shit, but that’s just me. This attitude was more about the ongoing debate over sex education in America than it was about any movie, and statistics demonstrate that teen pregnancy would continue its consistent decline since the advent of birth control, but what’re you gonna do?

Keep in mind, I don’t like this movie, and everything I saw or heard about it at the time made me hate it, but even as a pissy teenager, I never felt the need to invent a case against it, especially when that case existed to make me look stupid for being young.

Sorry, I got off track. Where were we? Right, awards!

I don’t know why, but Juno just clicked with the Academy in a way that simply suggests “right time, right place.” It had an aesthetic that was just becoming mainstream, it didn’t cover a whole lot of new ground, but the cast was fantastic, Ellen Page was immediately singled out as a rising star, so of course she got nominated for Best Lead Actress. Juno was also nominated for Best Picture, best Director, and won Best Original Screenplay. Diablo Cody is a great screenwriter, but she wasn’t a great screenwriter yet. You can sense her writing improving just over the course of the movie, and I’m glad she got her opportunity, but I can’t help but suspect that the Academy was moved to award out of condescension over the fact that Cody had once worked as a stripper, which isn’t unusual but which she had previously written about, and which was heavily publicized in the lead-up to the awards.

Nonetheless, Cody improved; I hesitate to suggest a more clear trajectory than hers. Director Jason Reitman is another story. He’s teamed up with Cody since, and it’s hard to reach new heights when your directorial debut is Thank You for Smoking, but it’s hard to get a sense of him as a filmmaker. He’s the Donna Lewis of directors: his movies aren’t like anyone else’s, but they’re also kinda like everyone else’s. Juno is very much in that vein.

Next Time: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Into the Wild (2007)

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Into the Wild
Dir. Sean Penn
Premiered at Telluride September 1, 2007

When I began high school, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was assigned reading for the summer, and a quick read, but not something I was keen to revisit in movie form; revolving as it did around an apparent spoiled, selfish brat whose foray into transcendental exploration ended miserably. But I was wrong. Sean Penn’s film adaptation actually makes things a lot clearer, and not necessarily on purpose.

Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a straight-A student thinking about going into law when, immediately after gradutation, he donates his life savings, disappears entirely from his family, and spends two years wandering the American west before dying, seemingly of starvation, deep in the Alaskan bush.

Krakauer’s book is investigative in nature, attempting to rigorously retrace McCandless’ steps, which it does admirably, before addressing the central mystery around his death, which unfortunately is not as interesting as the author thinks. The film eschews Krakauer’s point of view entirely, preferring to show almost the entire film from the perspective of McCandless himself, or Alexander Supertramp as he prefers to be known.

This is beneficial, as it eliminates the emotional barrier between the story and the audience, and for the most part enables you to take in the incredible imagery– though the film is not without the occasional retreat into comfortable middle-brow sensibility. Allegedly, director Sean Penn secretly admired McCandless and sought to portray him in a more sympathetic light. If that’s true, thank God he failed. Emile Hirsch, embodying McCandless in the round for the first time, makes concrete an insight that was lost in the book (at least to 9th graders)– this is not a man who is mentally well. His seeming brattiness as I saw it in the book quickly gives way to a kind of mania; his relentless calm and positivity is at once affable and disturbing, and suggests that his demons go deeper than his background of privilege and familial strife.

If that sounds off-putting, don’t be mistaken. This is an incredibly warm film, enlivened by a who’s who of supporting roles. At least one critic at the time suggested Vince Vaughn get an award for playing an affable harvester/felon, while Hal Holbrook got a best supporting actor nomination as the lonely desert-dweller Ron Franz. Holbrook is undoubtedly terrific, but my personal favorites are Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as a couple of not-so-old hippies (the film taking place in the early 1990s), and one-scene wonders Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen as two overexuberant Danish tourists on Lake Mead.

At the time it came out, Into the Wild was a slam dunk for the Oscars. A long, meditative true story, with a name director and a star-studded cast, anchored by a powerhouse performance from a young up-and-comer, and an original soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, newly anointed an elder statesman of rock with a history of contemplative, outward-looking music? In any other year, it couldn’t miss.

Unfortunately, it was 2007; for the calendar and for Hollywood, fall had only just begun.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Being a period piece set in the then-recent past, Into the Wild has its share of anachronisms, especially when McCandless goes to Los Angeles: he arrives on a BNSF railway train (BNSF didn’t exist until 1994); in the shadow of the Metro Building (1995), and passes by several orange buses (2004).

Additional Notes
About those retreats into middlebrow sensibility– something should’ve been done about those opening credits. They play over, and undercut, majestic cinemascope vistas of Alaskan wilderness, and it’s distracting as hell.

Kristen Stewart appears in her breakout year. It’s a more interesting performance than it sounds, but didn’t serve much of a purpose to the broader narrative.

How Did It Do?
Into the Wild grossed $56.3 million worldwide against an undisclosed budget. That’s not much, but it was enough, and didn’t stop the film from getting an 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Ben Lyons of The Daily 10 proclaimed it the best movie of the year; The A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson ranked it second-best, while her husband Noel Murray pegged it at seventh. Most positive reviews cited Emile Hirsch’s performance, but the film proved far more of a breakout role for Kristen Stewart as the furiously horny desert rat Nancy Tatro, a part so small that I didn’t mention it until now. Finally, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Holbrook. Indeed, critics and awards voters appeared keen to credit anyone except Penn.

Next Time: Juno

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

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In the Valley of Elah
Dir. Paul HaggisPremiered at Venice September 1, 2007

In December 2007, Claude Brodesser-Akner, host of the NPR show The Business, posited a question: why are big movies about the ongoing War in Iraq failing to find audiences when the Vietnam War had proven such a fruitful breeding ground for box office success?

People wouldn’t shut up about the Vietnam thing. The war had reached a low point by late 2006; rumors of a draft were rampant, and military recruiters desperately got 16-year-olds to sign contracts promising to enlist upon graduation from high school while marketing recruitment to boys as young as 12. And of course, people of an egotistical bent were eager to use the comparison to place themselves prematurely in the canon of history, which is what got us into the war in the first place.

The obvious problem, as Brodesser-Akner gleefully pointed out, was that the Iraq War was the first war in which Hollywood was producing films critical of the conflict contemporaneously. All the great Vietnam movies came out after the war. Like, years after. That war had to become nostalgic before it could be truly mined for pop cultural poignance. Unless you’re making a propaganda film, it’s too easy to get caught up in the moment and make something heavy-handed and instantly dated.

In the Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis’ follow-up to Crash, was viewed by many at the time as a much-needed commentary on the war, as well as a shot at redemption for Haggis himself. It isn’t.

In 2004, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed that his only living son Mike has gone AWOL from base shortly after completing his tour of duty in Iraq. When Hank arrives at the base in New Mexico to look for him, his body is found in the desert: stabbed, dismembered, and burned. Although this kind of killing is a common method for the drug cartels just over the border, Hank refuses to believe that his son was involved in such unsavory activity. A former military policeman with a keener eye than his successors, he teams up with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to uncover the truth.

In the Valley of Elah is a straightforward mystery story, one that admittedly touches on the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq veterans– praised by critics for being the first to do so– and was actually loosely based on a true story. But, as ever, it is obvious where truth ends and Hollywood contrivance begins. Haggis, as director and writer, is compelled to cram the film’s periphery with as many Very Important Issues as he can think of. Detective Saunders (Theron) struggles as a single mother and isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues. The neighboring Drug War in Mexico and abuse of POWs are both touched upon, but to no purpose. Another time, Hank explodes with xenophobic contempt for Mexicans, an outburst that comes out of nowhere and immediately disappears.

In the Valley of Elah is heavy with symbolism, but nothing much to symbolize. The film’s title refers to the location of the Biblical fight between David and Goliath, a story that is referenced twice in the film, but doesn’t relate to the story in any way.* Likewise, the upside-down flag, denoting a national emergency, appears but has nothing to do with the movie except to seem important (as well as to give Hank a Serious Acting Moment that is embarrassingly out of character). To give you an idea of what kind of movie this is, the final shots are overlaid by a tie-in song from Melissa Etheridge.

Altogether, In the Valley of Elah, generally well-received in its own time, has aged terribly, attempting to say too much with too little, and serves as a perfect example of why, with war movies, it’s better to wait.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Although based on a true story from 2004, In the Valley of Elah is distant enough from its source material that there’s no reason to set it in that year, except that it gives Haggis a way to mythologize even the very-recent past. Every scene with a television or radio plays echoes of speeches by George W. Bush in the background. In reality, even during election season, the Iraq War was barely an issue, and would continue to fade into the background until reaching its nadir a couple years later.

Additional Notes
*Haggis’ own explanation for the title is that he saw America’s armed forces as David going up against Goliath in Iraq. This, as critic David Edelstein pointed out at the time, doesn’t make any sense. I think he went with it because it just sounded Very Important.

How Did It Do?
In the Valley of Elah was filmed in West Texas alongside No Country for Old Men, as a result of which the two films share no fewer than 63 cast and crew members, including Jones, Brolin, and one-scene wonder Barry Corbin (incidentally, Tommy Lee Jones is a welcome promise on my screen even in a bad movie, and Corbin will always have a special place in my heart due to his role as Maurice on Northern Exposure).

In many respects, the two films mirror each other. No Country was a typical if exceptionally epic Coen movie that happened to get picked up by awards-guru producer Scott Rudin and win Best Picture; Elah meanwhile was a transparent and shallow stab at political relevancy by a veteran award collector, and got no such consideration, except for Tommy Lee Jones, who was nominated for Elah rather than No Country as a sort of compromise over what constituted a “lead role.” In both films, Jones plays a veteran detective, but in Elah he actually gets to be the elder savior upholding all that is good and just; No Country admires his service, but laughs at the idea of such closure, for him or for anyone.

True to form, In the Valley of Elah underperformed No Country by every metric. Grossing just $29.5 million against a $23 million budget, it failed to recoup marketing costs and charted lower than Nancy Drew.

Nevertheless, such was the thirst within the industry for critiques of the war that it managed to win over the majority of critics, earning a 73% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Dissenting opinions of the time read much the same as mine. More thought-provoking however is the frequency with which positive reviews invoke words like “vital,” “poignant,” and “raw.” When not hedging their bets over the movie’s shortcomings, or marveling at the novelty of addressing PTSD, otherwise sober critics chose to endorse the film foremost for its timeliness, and Haggis, whose departure from and fierce criticism of Scientology has earned him a new measure of respect, should tremble at what they might say today.

In his interview with Paul Haggis, Matt Holzmann optimistically suggested that audiences would warm to movies like Elah once the war was over. In contrast to his otherwise pompous remarks, Haggis played the suggestion down, and he ended up being right. In hindsight, Elah and its contemporaries have only become worse with age, and we’re just getting started.

Next Time: Into the Wild

 

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

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Encounters at the End of the World
Dir. Werner HerzogPremiered at Telluride September 1, 2007

In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to filmmaker Werner Herzog to film a documentary on Antarctica. The NSF probably didn’t get what they expected. In Herzog’s own words, “…I would not come up with another film about penguins.”

That’s not to say that Encounters at the End of the World is without penguins– Herzog takes great pleasure subtly mocking a taciturn penguin researcher, and the film is full of haunting imagery of the alien Antarctic landscape, far more than can be said here– but Herzog’s interest in Antarctica is through humans, the witnesses to the glory of the universe.

Apparently, it takes certain kinds of people to go to this remote, inhospitable locale– those who love the Earth and those who don’t like people. Herzog seems most at home with the various geologists who make Antarctica their summer home. Strangely, it is the life sciences who attract the loners, the majority of whom have come to get away from humanity, and believe it to be on the edge of extinction. Ever the unlikely humanist, Herzog treats their indifference to the human race with incredulity if not outright contempt, commiserating at one point with a former linguist who gave up his profession after the environmentally-minded scientific community took no interest in the extinction of human cultures.

Encounters at the End of the World is a beautiful film, but one that will make you want to stay the hell away from Antarctica. Every frame of film fills the viewer with apocalyptic unease, the conviction that human beings are not supposed to be there, and, in Herzog’s eyes, are mostly present as flights of fancy because there is no territory left on Earth to be discovered (he hammers this in by interviewing a so-called “explorer” who wishes to reach the South Pole via pogo stick). I can’t say this isn’t a good film, but I never want to see it again. Though that might just be my claustrophobia talking.

Signs this Was Made in 2007
Herzog’s jab at the penguin craze going on in popular culture, as well as the fact that the “film” is very obviously shot on DV Tape, a staple of television production that is usually altered to look like film, though not here.

Additional Notes
Herzog unexpectedly dedicates Encounters at the End of the World to film critic Roger Ebert, who is probably the most famous film critic in the world and was honored if mildly perplexed by Herzog’s tribute. I don’t get to talk about critics much, but few if anyone wrote more about film over a longer period of time than him. In the age of YouTube, thousands of film lovers have found an outlet to explore their interest and share it with us, but it’s safe to say he and Gene Siskel were the first. I do a lot of research for this project, and I’ve had the great pleasure of reading some of his old movie reviews, which he wrote with great enthusiasm and passion until his death in 2013.

How Did It Do?
Encounters at the End of the World was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, not for 2007 but rather 2008, when it finally entered wide release. The film grossed just $1.2 million worldwide, but got rave reviews (94% on RT), enabling Herzog to continue just as he had.

Next Time: In the Valley of Elah

Redacted (2017)

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Redacted
Dir. Brian De Palma
Premiered at Venice August 31, 2007

Whereas most major films of 2007 thus far were produced the previous year, simply owing to how long it takes to make a movie, Brian De Palma’s Redacted was– incredibly– produced over the course of a single month in the spring before premiering at Venice in the summer. To understand why, it’s necessary to discuss two very different events from exactly one year before its release.

First, De Palma’s previous film The Black Dahlia crashed and burned. Part of the same book series as L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia had been in development since the ‘90s, and with one of the great surviving auteurs of Hollywood’s new wave at the helm, it became one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. Unfortunately, the film failed to recoup any of its marketing or even crack the top-100 grossers of the year, while critics mostly derided it as a soulless genre exercise.

De Palma may have seen this coming, because he immediately began development on a project ripped from the headlines: just as The Black Dahlia opened in theaters, legal proceedings had begun against five US soldiers accused of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl and murdering her and her family in the Iraqi town of Mahmudiya. Although little-remembered today among the war crimes of that conflict, the story was catnip to De Palma, whose 1989 Casualties of War had covered similar ground in Vietnam and been a critical triumph, and who probably saw an opportunity to be the first A-list filmmaker to seriously take on the Iraq War at a time when Hollywood insiders (and only Hollywood insiders) were clamoring for it.

Somehow, what he came up with was a mockumentary.

First developed by the likes of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and Christopher Guest, mockumentary originally intended to parody documentary style, but also made for easy comedy by enabling characters to share their exact thoughts and feelings directly with the audience, and thus reached the height of popularity in the 2000s on TV and in film– we’ve already seen it in action this year with Surf’s Up!

But in contrast to its spiritual predecessor the epistolary novel, mockumentary is not an effective means to create drama, and by using the format, Redacted constantly undercuts its own existence. If it’s based on real ongoing events, in a style typically used to document real ongoing events, why didn’t De Palma just make a documentary? There are many answers one might provide, but none of them reflect positively on the director, and one need only watch the movie to understand why it was a terrible idea.

The majority of the film is told from the perspective of “Sally” Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a PFC hoping to edit video footage of his service into a documentary and win a spot in film school. Through his camera, we see the strain placed on his squad as they are forced to spend an extra week in the city of Samarra. Their sergeant (Ty Jones) meets a sudden death, and nerves rattle until some of the men propose going off-base and roughing up a teenage girl who routinely comes through their checkpoint.

If you’re worried about encountering moral ambiguity or character arcs, fear not; for a movie that graphically depicts rape, summary execution, torture, and mutilation, Redacted is bizarrely averse to offending perceived viewer sensibilities when it comes to characterization: the good soldiers are never morally in question, and the bad soldiers are cartoon villains from start to finish. One of the antagonists (Daniel Stewart Sherman) is so stupid he doesn’t know what Arabic is, and the instigator (Patrick Carroll) wears a skull bandanna on his head and a massive crucifix tucked into his vest, and owns a collection of Confederate memorabilia that serves as the focus of any shot in which it appears. He also drops the word “sand n****r” about thirty times. Good thing he’s such an obvious psychopath, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known that war crimes are bad!

Placing this already-compromised narrative within the “gritty” documentary format places this film within a narrative Uncanny Valley: the more De Palma strains to make this feel real, the more blatant the unreality becomes. The men don’t talk as if they’re in a documentary. Sure, the actors’ tone of voice is appropriately off-the-cuff, but the dialogue itself is more reminiscent of a phoned-in term paper. Everyone always says what they’re thinking, carefully avoiding any repetition of words or phrases, and about half of what is echoes familiar talking points.

Adding to the confusion, Redacted isn’t just a mockumentary, but several rolled into one: interspersed with the supposed footage from Sally’s camera is b-roll from a contemporaneous yet never-remarked-upon French production, Arabic-language “news” footage, staged YouTube clips and Skype chats, and most inexplicable of all US Army security camera records. Assuming that the whole is meant to be a single piece in-universe, how the hell did the filmmaker get ahold of that?

As the film races to a merciful end, a random woman with a voice similar to Ellen Page offers a screaming YouTube tirade to the effect that what we have witnessed is so horrific that “not even liberal Hollywood will touch it.” And yet here’s Brian De Palma touching it! I mean, look, he’s really going there! Isn’t he fucking brave!? How better to pre-emptively defend the movie against the scorn of critics and the indifference of audiences? Don’t like the movie? “That’s just what they want you to think!” Congratulations, Redacted, you fucking win. Here’s nothing.

Fuck this movie. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. Fuck the impetus behind it, fuck the sense of moral superiority that hovers over every haranguing moment, fuck the way it takes the easy way out at every turn, fuck the moronic attempts to insert a fucking sitcom gimmick to be relevant and kewl, fuck the implication that mass murder and gang rape are bad because bad people do it, fuck the implication that that’s the only thing our dumb asses will understand, and fuck the very idea that this vapid, bullying piece of shit would be meaningful to anyone.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film is co-produced by HDNet, an obscure cable television most famous for being the only network that would hire former CBS anchor Dan Rather after the Killian Documents Controversy. A facsimile of YouTube appears repeatedly in all its awkwardly-textured first-generation glory.

The Las Vegas tourist slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” (superfluous comma not mine) is used to defend the cover-up.

How Did It Do?
Redacted got what it deserved, earning just $782,102 against a $5 million budget– and just $65,388 in its native United States. Critics were starkly divided, earning it a 45% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes– reading the negative ones was deeply cathartic after having to sit through the picture– and the film was not considered for any awards but the Silver Lion it unaccountably won at Venice upon its debut.

But the story continues. First, while Redacted crows at the inability to get justice for the atrocity committed, Kurt Loder of MTV was quick to point out that all of the Mahmoudiya killers were being prosecuted at the time– and were ultimately all convicted– making De Palma’s self-congratulation ring all the more hollow.

Then, US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) filed an official complaint to the MPAA that the movie was anti-military– an action unprecedented since the McCarthy era. Even more unprecedented was that critic Kyle Smith, a conservative Republican who opposed Redacted’s politics, then became the movie’s biggest defender.

And in case you needed another reason not to make a mockumentary drama, a man in Germany in 2011 saw by clips of the film on YouTube, believing them to be actual documentary footage, and was inspired to shoot several US Airmen stationed in Frankfurt.

Next Time: Encounters at the End of the World

Michael Clayton (2007)

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Michael Clayton
Dir. Tony GilroyPremiered at Venice August 31, 2007

Originally when I came up with this project, I had intended to focus on the true classics of 2007, the movies that made it the best year ever. But it seemed too limiting. As someone interested in history, I felt that a broader overview of the year’s cinematic output would highlight elements of that time period to light that might otherwise be forgotten.

Like the deplorable The Invasion, Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut and passion project Michael Clayton– a title I will never stop confusing with Michael Collins– captures a certain period-specific type of fear. Two in fact: one legitimate and widely understood, one that has aged terribly.

The titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a mysterious character; a former prosecutor who left his up-and-coming position to work as a fixer (or “janitor” in the lingo of the film) for a massive corporate law firm. Typically, he covers the company’s ass, but things begin to spiral out of control when he’s sent to Wisconsin to do damage control after his colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a manic-depressive breakdown during a deposition.

It turns out Arthur’s freakout may not just be mental– the company he’s representing, a Monsanto stand-in called United Northfield, is being sued for manufacturing a weed killer that’s believed to be a prolific carcinogen. Arthur has found further evidence that the product is not only cancerous to the farmers using it, but to the consumers of the food they produce. He can’t take it anymore, leaves the case, and U-North’s general counsel (Tilda Swinton) will stop at nothing to keep this new evidence from coming to light.

George Clooney does a great job, of course. Tom Wilkinson does to, and so do most of the actors. But something isn’t right. Watching Michael Clayton, I was reminded most strongly of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate; wherein the spectre of Communism is misguidedly replaced with paranoia of a corporate enemy within. Let’s face it: most of Hollywood is pretty liberal, especially the kind of people who produce prestige movies like this. In a post-Bush, post-Great Recession, post-The Informant! world, the mutual understanding that giant corporations are greedy, amoral, and endanger our health is taken for granted. I’m not saying it wasn’t understood in the 2000s, but in the heady days of Karl Rove’s so-called “permanent majority,” it may have seemed to some that a more concrete threat was needed in order to convey that to the general public.

As a consequence, we get didactic conspiracies of corporate hit men, hunting down the brave souls who can expose the truth and set everyone free. In the real world, such extreme measures aren’t necessary; and to its credit, Michael Clayton ends the film by mocking U-North’s overdoing of the situation; but there’s a reason the film, despite the acclaim of its own time, is probably most remembered from this spoilerrific quote from 30 Rock:

Floyd: I am the Michael Clayton of Cleveland!
Liz: Well I hope your car blows up!

Signs This Movie Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Blackberry. Also, something weird about this: Clayton is stated to have been born in 1959, but he himself says he’s 45. Was this movie, like fellow prestige film In the Valley of Elah, pointlessly set in 2004?

Additional Notes
It eventually pays off, but the first thirty minutes of this film, before the plot really kicks in, feels like an overextended Indiana Jones-style character-establishing prologue.

How Did It Do?
When you think back to the 2007 Oscars, it’s mostly a solid lineup. So imagine my surprise to look back and discover that Michael Clayton received seven nominations that year, more than any other except No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The least of the five films to get a Best Picture nod, it was additionally nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), and its sole win for Best Supporting Actress (Swinton). What’s more, it made a solid $92 million against a lean $25 million budget and a 90% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with no less than Claudia Puig (USA Today), Richard Roeper, and Richard Schickel (Time) declaring it the best film of 2007.

At the time of this writing, I have Michael Clayton ranked 70th.

Next Time: Redacted