Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Dir. Tim Story
Premiered June 12, 2007

So I was off on my own, going to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at what would later become the ArcLight Pasadena when a college-aged guy came up to me to offer me a place at a test screening for two upcoming politically-oriented films: Rendition (about which more later) and War, Inc. This seemed like a cool deal, but I had briefly forgotten that I was still 17, which meant that the man barely older than myself then attempted to be “hip” by chatting me up about the upcoming Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer until it quickly became clear that neither of us knew what we were talking about.

This is for good reason: of all the Marvel superhero brands, the Fantastic Four stand alone in never having clicked with a wider audience: by 2007 it had been the subject of a handful of little-seen TV series, a never-released Roger Corman b-movie made purely to hold onto the option on the comics, and Tim Story’s 2005 film, which was financially successful but of no interest to me or anyone I knew.

As for that first movie, the cast appear to have been chosen for their physical resemblances to the characters in the comics and nothing else, as they have no chemistry. Despite having played many Americans before, Welshman Ioann Gruffudd strains at an American accent as Reed Richards and ends up occasionally lapsing into an impression of Guillermo del Toro; Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing is at least serviceable, but doesn’t feel like he’s playing a character; Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl, is only a slightly more convincing a scientist than Denise Richards; and even Chris Evans, who can usually bring much-needed levity to a dubious character, acts like a lost castmember from Grind while playing Johnny the Human Torch.

The plot is painfully generic and relies on so many contrivances and conveniences as to border on dream logic; the dialogue cliché-ridden and delivered with uniform woodenness. What’s more, it focuses far more on the Four’s personal lives and petty squabbles than on being superheroes, to the point where they only end up saving themselves at the end. The overall mood is oddly weightless and carefree in a distinctly pre-9/11 sort of way– indeed, the final draft of the script was written in April 2001 while the film was in the midst of a tortured decade-plus development.

Having gone through an even quicker production cycle than usual, its sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, raises the stakes to a reasonable level, but doubles down on everything else to the point of parody.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer can be easily be divided into two parts: first, the the Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) comes to Earth and starts messing up all kinds of stuff: power outages in the US, snow in Egypt, the ocean freezing in Japan– not cooling down to a solid state, but simply becoming stuck in time and thus taking on the attributes of solid mass– and giant sinkholes appearing all over the world. Yet this news is somehow sidelined by the long-awaited fairytale wedding of Reed and Sue. Having repeatedly postponed their marriage in order to save the world, they begin to question whether they can lead a normal life as celebrities and decide to quit being heroes.

But before they can do that, the franchise finally remembers that it’s about superheroes. General Hager (Andre Braugher) reaches out to Reed for help tracking and capturing the Silver Surfer, with help from previous baddie Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who’s been inadvertently revived by the Surfer’s energy and reasons (if only temporarily) that he needs the world to continue existing, because it turns out that the Surfer is merely a slave to a world-devouring cloud called Galactus.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer wants to be both a superhero movie and a comedy– attempting to do what Guardians of the Galaxy eventually would. But it’s relying purely on the situations to be funny, and misses every opportunity to tell a good joke. For example, after being dragged into space by the Silver Surfer, Johnny crash-lands in the Sahara desert where he encounters some Berber nomads. The joke should be that they recognize him as the world-famous Human Torch, it would make sense in the context of the rest of the movie, but instead, Johnny looks up and there’s a camel! Isn’t that hilarious!?

And as a superhero movie, it doesn’t have enough care for its own universe to make sense. Another example: after coming in contact with the Silver Surfer, Johnny and Sue switch powers when they touch; as ever, the fire powers make Sue’s custom-designed supersuit burn up leaving her naked, yet Johnny’s suit, altered only to resist fire, turns invisible with him. Then he switches with Ben and turns into his own version of The Thing but stays roughly the same size as his normal self.

The plot too is relentlessly sloppy: there’s no rhyme or reason to the nature of the Surfer’s influence on the earth, and Reed figures out that his next attack will be on London because London is in fact at 50º east and 30º north. You heard it here first, folks: London is the capital of Iran. Also, the Great Wall of China is driving distance from Shanghai, Yakutsk is a short flight from Manhattan, and a cloud is a compelling villain.

The whole thing is like this: it’s all mapped out to be silly and weird, but instead it reads as awkward and stupid. The blocking, cinematography, editing, and special effects are so bland and careless that whatever director Tim Story was trying to do– having already been handicapped by a laughless script– dies onscreen. It’s worth noting that Chris Columbus was an executive producer, and though it’s unlikely that he had much creative input, this movie fails in all the same ways that his directorial efforts do.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The New York Skyline features the World Financial Center but neither incarnation of the World Trade Center. Circuit City still exists. Reed still has a PDA; the iPhone debuted the month after this came out. The US is using a military base in Russia.

Additional Notes
I don’t know how to say this nicely, and it’s certainly not her fault, but Jessica Alba’s solid blue contacts in this movie make her look like a Robert Zemeckis mo-cap zombie.
There’s a weird microplot about General Hager resenting Reed for being too much of a nerd, but I’m pretty sure some intellectual rigor is required to be a military officer, and Andre “Snowflake from Glory” Braugher doesn’t exactly read as a meathead.

How Did It Do?
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer suffered much the same fate as Spider-Man 3: it made a profit ($330 million against a $130 million budget), but still grossed less than its predecessor and was trashed by critics– albeit not as overwhelmingly as the first Fantastic Four, and admittedly it’s at least not as boring.

In a very strange series of events, 20th Century Fox somehow got the Franklin Mint to produce US quarters altered to advertise the film, which was super illegal and made the government quite cross.

By the film’s premiere date, plans had already been drawn up for another sequel as well as a Silver Surfer spinoff, but as with Spider-Man, the failure of the movie convinced 20th Century Fox to burn it all down and start over. As before, this took several years of development which continued even after the ultimate reboot began production. The result, helmed by Chronicle auteur Josh Trank, was widely considered one of the worst studio films of 2015.

Next Time: Live Free or Die Hard

 

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1408 (2007)

 

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1408
Dir. Mikael Håfström
Premiered June 12, 2007

Stephen King has had a rough time of it. While King has never been pleased with even the best film adaptations of his work– including one he directed– it’s fair to say that they’re very hit-and-miss. Bad Stephen King movies not only cheap out on effects and direction, but highlight the author’s most tired tropes: Maine, bullies, alcoholics, fundamentalists, non-explanation explanations, you know the list.

1408 has none of those trademarks, but it does star John Cusack, who at the time was in the midst of a fourteenyear hiatus from respectability, and led me to believe that the movie wouldn’t be any good. But it was well-received and remains much-liked by movie buffs and King fans, so it seemed worth a go.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a once-promising author who has turned to writing trashy paperbacks about haunted places since the death of his young daughter– though he himself doesn’t believe in ghosts. One day, Enslin receives a mysterious postcard informing him about the most haunted place of all– Room 1408, on the 14th (read: 13th) floor of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, where 56 people have died in the near-century since it opened, and even hotel staff fear to enter. Against the protests of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), Enslin checks in for one night to see if it lives up to the legend.

At first, everything seems normal. It’s a little hot, maybe. Then the window closes on Enslin’s hand, then the radio plays “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters, and it appears as if the room has been refreshed as his back has been turned. Unfortunately, the film takes it up to eleven way too fast, as the clock begins to count down, the windows disappear, and the room begins to unleash all kinds of inexplicable hell.

This sudden escalation is scary at first, but quickly becomes tiresome as the film has nowhere to go. It was based on a short story and you can tell. 1408 is better than you’d expect based on John Cusack’s involvement at the time, but only slightly better than King’s lesser adaptations.

Additional Notes
Samuel L. Jackson gets second-billing, which makes sense, though he’s barely in the film as Cusack spends most of it alone. Jackson makes the most of his limited screentime however, bringing a suave new dimension to his classic badass persona in a way I haven’t seen in anything else.

Yet again, John Cusack gets caught in the rain. Twice in fact: showing up to a backwoods hotel in the movie’s first scene, then getting sprayed by manic fire sprinklers in the titular room. And in case you forgot he’s from Chicago, he brought a White Sox cap.

How Did It Do?
The world at large enjoyed 1408 far more than I did: it grossed $132 million against a $25 million budget and earned a 79% “Certified Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes. The critical consensus at the time expressed great admiration for Cusack’s ability to elevate the material, as well as the movie’s almost willful defiance of horror trends (this was the midst of the “torture porn” epidemic). I’m no fan of rewarding a movie from what it isn’t, but plenty of people since have highlighted the movies imaginative use of setting, so it seems to have stood the test of time for people other than me.

Next Time: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Surf’s Up! (2007)

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Surf’s Up!
Dir. Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Premiered June 2, 2007

I don’t know what was going on in the collective unconscious of the mid-2000s to make everyone go apeshit over penguins, but here we are. March of the Penguins begat George Miller’s Happy Feet, which we may presume begat Surf’s Up!, yet another kid-friendly flick centered around the lives of penguins.

Uniquely among films for children (as fas as I know), Surf’s Up! also chases another trend of its decade by being a mockumentary: just as actual documentaries were entering the mainstream of entertainment, so did the use of the documentary format to tell fictional stories. Surf’s Up!, then, is the ultimate conclusion of both trends: an animated mockumentary about anthropomorphic penguins who like surfing.

From the outset, director Chris Buck is having a ball with this project, featuring the most realistic water effects I’ve yet seen in 3D animation, absolutely gorgeous environments, and a much more enthusiastic and self-aware use of the documentary format than most movies or TV shows of its kind– like The Office at the time, and later Modern Family, the movie does occasionally forget that there’s supposed to be a camera crew walking around, but it’s still much better at remembering than most.

If only the story had been so inspired. Adolescent penguin Cody Maverick (Shia LaBoeuf) is an outcast in his native Antarctica who has entertained a dream of surfing professionally ever since a childhood visit from the late surfing legend Big Z (Jeff Bridges). Jumping at the chance to compete on the tropical island of Pen Gu, he’s injured after challenging Z’s cocky former rival (Diedrich Bader), and seeks help from a jungle-dwelling hermit– who turns out to be Z himself, having faked his death after becoming disillusioned with surfing. Z and Cody end up teaching each other some lessons; along the way Cody falls in with a sexy (?) lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), stoner chicken (Jon Heder), and the otter running the whole show (James Woods, riding his Hades schtick into the sunset).

It’s fortunate that I get to review this movie immediately after We Own the Night. On the surface, both movies are visually extravagant but middling in story or character. The key difference is that in We Own the Night, the story is merely a pretext for the visual artistry. Children’s movies do not have that freedom, there’s an expectation of moral and educational value, and thus the visuals are in service of tiresome old kid-film clichés: the pre-climactic disappointment, the flibbertygibbet love interest, daddy issues to the point of self-parody– literally every father mentioned in the movie is dead– and so much forced conflict. This inevitably fails to match the experimental visuals or storytelling technique. Combine this with a ton of characters and a very lean running time (85 minutes, including a whopping 10 minutes of end credits) and you ironically get one of the most forgettable films of the year.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The penguin thing, the mockumentary thing, the involvement of Jon Heder, the prolific use of Green Day songs.

How Did It Do?
Surf’s Up! grossed $149 million against a $100 million budget, a non-technical flop. Astonishingly however, it received a whopping 79% fresh rating and an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Journeyman animator Chris Buck had previously broken into directing with Disney’s Tarzan (1999), and was one of the people who left the company when Michael Eisner basically dared everyone to. With John Lasseter now leading Disney Animation, Buck was persuaded to return, giving the mouse its biggest ever hit in motherfucking Frozen.

Next Time: 1408

We Own the Night (2007)

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We Own the Night
Dir. James Gray
Premiered at Cannes May 25, 2007

When you think of the most distinctive and innovative directors of the last ten years, who comes to mind? Rian Johnson? Villeneuve? Refn? How about James Gray? Even assuming you’re the kind of person who reads these reviews regularly, that last one might be a mystery to you. Let me fix that for you.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gray is one of the most unappreciated voices in American film, partly because of the endless machinations of his now-vanquished archnemesis Harvey Weinstein, partly because his movies– even otherwise conventional gangster movies like his debut Little Odessa and today’s We Own the Night– tend to be longish, contemplative, and spiritually-oriented; neither pop enough for the summer blockbuster season nor “important” enough for awards buzz. But make no mistake, he’s done some of the best work out there, and has a sixth sense for when to make a movie, so look forward to reading about more of his stuff in future retrospectives.

The plot, while somewhat boilerplate, is anchored by yet another great performance we’ve come to expect from star Joaquin Phoenix. In 1988, Bobby Green (Phoenix) has forsaken the legacy of his career-cop family in favor of a surrogate patriarch in immigrant entrepreneur Murat (Moni Moroshov) who’s helped Green to become owner of the hottest nightclub in Brooklyn. However, Green’s detective father (Robert Duvall) and brother (Mark Wahlberg) end up on a case investigating Murat’s mobster nephew (Alex Veadov).

Green doesn’t want to get involved with either side, but soon finds no choice as the Russian mob targets him, his family, and his loving girlfriend (Eva Mendes), sending him into a mental breakdown from which he may yet emerge with the strength to carry on.

With a taste for Scorsese but an eye for Kubrick, Gray should qualify for some variation on Deakins’ Law*: no matter the quality of the storytelling, it will be a feast for the eyes, and true to form, We Own the Night is hard to pull away from; I had trouble just pausing the movie to take notes. The composition and the colors are resplendent in every frame, giving vibrance and vitality to what could have been just another Brooklyn-set indie crime drama (we can all imagine what that might look like). That alone elevates We Own the Night to the dubious-sounding but well-earned position of “second-best Russian mafia movie of 2007.”

The best is yet to come.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch cameos as himself.

Additional Notes
*To quote Chris Stuckmann, “no movie shot by [cinematographer] Roger Deakins is the worst movie you’ve ever seen.”

How Did It Do?
We Own the Night was picked up by Sony for a wide release in October 2007. As we will soon see, that was a crowded month for wide releases, however, and the film grossed $54 million against a $21 million budget; enough to profit but not very much altogether, even by the standards of the time. However, the film has done incredibly well in the home video market. Critics meanwhile were starkly divided, especially on Gray’s dialogue, although most agreed on the visual quality. Altogether, it earned a 56% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Gray, who previously went long periods without directing, picked up his pace considerably. By the time of We Own the Night’s Cannes debut, Gray had already begun production on his follow-up feature Two Lovers, since followed up in this decade by The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z, and 2019’s forthcoming Ad Astra.

This concludes my all-star coverage of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It’s back to Hollywood for June, and will it ever be a rough ride…

Next Time: Surf’s Up!

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

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Ocean’s Thirteen
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Premiered at Cannes May 24, 2007

There’s no one reason for the success of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. It just all kinda worked. It had a ton of star power at a time when star power meant something. It was slick and stylish like few comedies were. It had a good sense of humor, just the right mix of self-awareness and general goofing off to avoid becoming tiresome. And it took itself just seriously enough to keep audiences invested without leaning into self-importance. It’s tempting to hold Ocean’s Eleven up as an example to follow, but it feels like Soderbergh just kinda got lucky and made the rare film that’s fun to watch in the same way that it was fun to make.

What I’m saying is the sequels aren’t as good. Ocean’s Twelve is a little too much of everything: too long, too plot-heavy, too meta, way too contrived; never so much as to make the movie a hard watch, but too disinterested and nonsensical to enjoy on more than the most superficial level.

In a major course correction, Ocean’s Thirteen starts fresh, bringing the franchise back to its native Las Vegas for a straightforward story with ample room for its characters to play around in. After getting back into the casino business, the team’s money man Reuben (Elliot Gould) is screwed out of a partnership at a massive new casino owned by all-around nogoodnik Willy Bank (Al Pacino) and nearly dies of a heart attack.

In order to lift Reuben’s spirits, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) brings everyone together to get back at Bank by tanking the casino. To deprive Bank of his beloved Five Diamond Award, resident impressionist Saul (Carl Reiner) plays the part of the award auditor while surreptitiously torturing the real one (David Paymer). Then, tech experts Livingston and Nagel (Eddies Jemison and Izzard) rig every game in the casino so the house loses– to complete the score, Virgil (Casey Affleck) heads off to Mexico to rig the dice, but gets fed up with factory conditions and starts a strike.

Finally, unconvincingly-accented genius Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) uses a tunnel-boring machine and magnetron to simulate an earthquake under the casino and kill the security system, but when they run out of money, Ocean’s Eleven baddie Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) offers to help on the condition that the gang get him Bank’s previous Five Diamond Awards, which they plan to do by having pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon) seduce Bank’s floor manager (Ellen Barkin) on the roof. It makes sense in context.

Ocean’s Thirteen is certainly not as good as Eleven, but a huge improvement over Twelve. The first half, with all its technobabble, frustratingly tells rather than show the plan, which is especially odd as Thirteen, judging purely by cinematography and editing, is easily the most visually creative of the three. Even dropping Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones from the script, the individual cast members struggle to get in more than one or two good moments; suffice it to say that Saul, Tarr, Linus, and the Malloys (Affleck and Scott Caan) get maximum facetime while even the brains of the operation, Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt), get the short end of the stick, let alone acrobat Yen (Qin Shaobo). At least Francis (Bernie Mac) wasn’t completely wasted on it like he was in Twelve.

Not that much to say about this one, honestly. It was alright.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt) are moved to tears by an episode of Oprah. Sponder (Barkin) is referred to as a “cougar” with appropriate disdain for the term. Willy Bank is a pretty obvious stand-in for real-life Vegas mogul Steve Wynn. While Wynn was originally the basis for Benedict, Bank matches him more closely in both appearance and personality.

How Did It Do?
Ocean’s Thirteen grossed $311.3 million against an $85 million budget and won a reprieve from critics with a 70% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Although it wisely avoided falling into the Trilogy Trap, director Steven Soderbergh was happy to walk away from the franchise here. However, this didn’t stop him from handing the reins to Gary Ross for an all-women, next-generation-style soft reboot; nor from offering his own low-down variation on the series with this year’s Logan Lucky.

Next Time: We Own the Night

Persepolis (2007)

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Persepolis
Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent ParronoudPremiered at Cannes May 23, 2007

I live in California, and here is a large community of Persians, Armenians, and Jews who fled the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They’ve been my neighbors, colleagues, and even one of my favorite comedians. But overall, my impression of the Revolution is informed almost entirely by those who got away.

While politics isn’t absent from Persepolis, it’s not really a political film. In the late 1970s, young Marjane Satrapi witnesses the downfall of the Shah of Iran. Inspired by the stories of her Communist uncle, she eagerly awaits a new era of freedom in her country. Instead, things get worse. The Islamic Republic is established, opposed to both eastern and western blocs. Political repression intensifies, and her uncle is executed. Friends and family die as the country enters eight years of brutal war with Iraq. Western products disappear off shelves and into the black market. And the establishment that once venerated the Shah now venerates the Ayatollah.

Too free-spirited to live in such a condition, Satrapi is sent by her parents to Europe, but she is treated like a stranger and does not enjoy the compassion she did in her home country. However, returning home is no easier. Though the war is over, the country seems to be in a state of permanent revolution, and she must decide whether to stay and try to make the best of the situation, and leave without the possibility of returning.

By eschewing an agenda, Persepolis manages to be far more enlightening and persuasive than any other depiction of this time and place I’ve seen so far. The animation is cute, but still delightfully expressionistic and able to convey a universe of emotions. What’s more, it neither demonizes nor venerates Satrapi’s choices; they are merely part of life, and there are often no good answers.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Nothing particular comes to mind, though Satrapi’s drawing style is very reminiscent of more recent animated fare. Perhaps there was some influence there.

Additional Notes

How Did It Do?
Persepolis grossed $22.8 million against a $7.3 million budget, and received a glowing 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. France chose the film as its submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film; it wasn’t nominated for that, but it did get a nomination for Best Animated Feature, the only traditionally-animated film to be so recognized.

I might be the only person who thinks the movie is somewhat overrated, but reading a lot of the reviews, a lot of the praise seems to be based in the film’s politics, or the novelty of using animation to depict and discuss serious topics like this. This novelty would be short-lived, to the point that traditional animation started to be seen as inherently artsy.

Persepolis has proven surprisingly controversial since its release. The Iranian government, fresh off their overserious condemnation of Zack Snyder’s 300, condemned the film as counterrevolutionary, prompting a heavily censored release in the country and short-lived ban in its ally Lebanon. That was to be expected. What was not expected was for the Iranian government to pressure the Bangkok Film Festival into dropping the film in June, for the head of a Tunisian TV channel that showed it to be arrested and convicted for broadcasting an anthropomorphic image of God (See? I wasn’t kidding!), or for a school district near Seattle to nearly ban the film and its source material for its frank depiction of female puberty, political violence, and profanity, one of many reminders at the time that my Catholic high school might as well have been Woodstock compared to most of its secular counterparts in the US.

Next Time: Ocean’s 13

Mister Lonely (2007)

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mister lonely
dir. harmony korine
premiered at cannes may 22, 2007

harmony korine. critics have called him a glue-sniffer, a cinematic vandal, an idiot savant, a man failing upwards into the highest echelons of arthouse, a filmmaker whose artistic pretension has led to some of the most unwatchable films of all time– and a lot of these condemnations were supportive. such is the power of korine: even his good reviews are bad.

korine’s public persona is the product of a diabolically confusing, victor/victoria-level relationship between genius and idiocy, to the point that no one can be certain which he is, nor which he is pretending to be. if tommy wiseau had the mental acuity, experience, and discipline to truly harness his shattered perception of reality, and yearned after the contemporary european arthouse instead of 1950s hollywood, this is who he would be. and having spent so much time under the career protection of supercreep larry clark and actual genius werner herzog, korine can apparently do whatever he wants, which is how, after an eight-year hiatus from filmmaking, we got this movie.

i have heard mister lonely called korine’s most normal film and his worst– by the same critic, no less– and it’s strange: a deeply personal film totally unfettered by storytelling convention, audience appeal, or thematic coherence. diego luna plays a michael jackson impersonator so filled with self-loathing that he never fully drops character. alone and miserable in paris, where he doesn’t speak the language, “michael” is invited by a marilyn monroe look-alike (samantha morton) to live on a commune in the scottish highlands inhabited by other compulsive celebrity impersonators.

it’s not actually terrible at first, but whatever momentum the main story has grinds to a halt after half an hour, and devolves into korine’s usual schtick: creepy, awkward, repetitive, and pointless. the sheep become diseased and have to be put down. a small child impersonates buckwheat and lusts after a chicken. the sun is an emoji. there are love triangles galore, the gang builds a ramshackle theater that more closely resembles the illegal artist communes i know, and they put on a show for an audience smaller than the cast. it’s clearly an allegory for korine’s own career trajectory and disillusionment in europe, but the presentation is bafflingly deliberate in its own forceful mediocrity.

and yet this is not the entire movie. sprinkled throughout are bits of a much better movie, in which werner herzog plays a priest leading a group of nuns in an airlift of food through the south american rainforest. when one of the nuns falls out of the plains, she prays to god to break her fall, it works, and suddenly the church has a bona fide miracle on its hands. shot documentary-style in the jungle with improvised dialogue, this aside is so akin to herzog’s own films that i’m not totally convinced it isn’t. unfortunately, this is only a tease in between vast chunks of the world’s most boring fever dream.

signs this was made in 2007
as if you couldn’t tell by the fact he’s played by diego luna, this michael is very much the pasty, perpetually-on-the-verge-of-death freakshow michael who was alive at the time. also herzog mentions that the pope is bavarian.

how did it do?
mister lonely left pretty much everyone befuddled and irritated in equal measure. it earned a pitiful $393,813 against an $8.2 million budget, and got a muddled 47% fresh rating on rottentomatoes. critics backhandedly complimented the as not being as stomach-churning as korine’s previous works.

korine appears to have taken that as a challenge, following up in 2009 with trash humpers, a literal 90-minute corrupted videotape of rednecks in halloween masks having sex with piles of garbage. he then followed that up with spring breakers, his most commercial film and the only one of his ever to get a fresh rating on rt.

despite the admittedly milder-than-usual revulsion of critics, mister lonely was hotly anticipated, if only because it had been so long since korine’s last movie, and here he truly shows his range as a purveyor of all things alienating, pointless, and lame: a one-man artistic movement that he calls “mistakism.” but for all that…commitment, i can’t say that korine has much to offer beyond a general desire to be among his idols– people like herzog, leos carax (who also appears in the film), michael winterbottom, and gus van sant (who were both showing films at cannes that year). and in that sense, he’s unquestionably succeeded.

next time: persepolis

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Dir. Julian Schnabel
Premiered at Cannes May 22, 2007

This movie is a nightmare. A good movie, but a nightmare nonetheless.

A true story, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor of the fashion magazine Elle, experiences what seems to be a stroke during a weekend visit to his children. In actuality, his condition is much worse; he has lost the use of his brainstem, and can only communicate by blinking his left eye. Trapped in a useless body in the far corner of Nord Pas-de-Calais, he nonetheless uses his limited ability to dictate a book on the experience.

Directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is at once an inspiring and horrifying window into the fate of a talented and charming man, but nonetheless someone who would not be known by name if he had not made the incredible effort to express his experience. Schnabel occasionally lapses into haute-cinema randomness and it’s not my kind of movie overall, but I can’t say it didn’t have an effect.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The soundtrack? Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography? I’m not sure.

Additional Notes
Jean-Do’s father is played by Max Von Sydow. How many languages does he speak anyway?
Two men from the phone company make a joke at Jean-Do’s expense. Henriette is offended on his behalf, but Jean-Do thinks it’s funny.

How Did It Do?
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly won Best Director and the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes. It wasn’t released in the US until 2008, but in accordance with Cannes rules, it did go wide in France during the festival. It grossed $19.8 million dollars worldwide against a €10.8 million budget. Unfortunately, the value of the Euro was soaring out of control at this time while the US Dollar was worth less its Canadian counterpart for the first time ever, so it couldn’t make its money back.

Nevertheless, it persisted. Because all the critics saw it before it went wide in the US, it managed to make a bunch of top-ten lists; at least nine critics in nationally-syndicated papers rated it the best movie of 2007. My friend Diego Crespo at AudiencesEverywhere agrees, and I think he’s nuts. It also got a ton of awards recognition, including four Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing) but no wins.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did not have the legacy for its director or star that you’d expect from that, though. Schnabel has kept directing, though his first three films (Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and this) are still way more famous and popular than the two he’s done since (Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse and Miral). Likewise, Matthieu Amalric landed a huge role as the villain in the next Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, yet did not parlay that into the level of fame or name recognition of any other actor who got to do that. It’s odd.

But nothing is as odd as the next movie.

Next Time: Mister Lonely

Paranoid Park (2007)

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Paranoid Park
Dir. Gus Van Sant
Premiered at Cannes May 21, 2007

Note: this review expands upon one that I wrote after first seeing the film in 2013.

On May 14, 2007, the AV Club released an inventory of films that defined the decades in which they were made. A lot of the choices are debatable– as far as I’m concerned, the defining movie of the 1970s isn’t Nashville, but Dog Day Afternoon. But more egregiously, their choice for the 2000s was Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. At the time, the shadow of 9/11 loomed large, but in retrospect, it seemed a shortsighted pick: 9/11 shaped the decade, yes, but in unexpected ways, and for my money, no film captured that more perfectly than Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival exactly one week after that Inventory was written.

The plot is paper-thin, but still incredibly dark: based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a reticent teen skater who ventures alone to a dangerous underground skate park and is implicated in a gruesome murder. There are parts of this film that echo the lower echelons of art cinema. A sex scene recalls a more restrained Larry Clark, while there are long, pointless silences and audio experiments that bring back traumatic memories of Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry.

But Van Sant’s attention to detail is the biggest draw. Coming off his “Trilogy of Death,” Paranoid Park is a textbook example of the Instant Period Piece, a work that so perfectly and meticulously captures the era in which it was made that its datedness becomes its greatest strength. The bad skater hair, the girls dressed as ring-tailed lemurs, the little brother reciting lines from Napoleon Dynamite– everything about the movie screams “2000s,” and the sooner you realize that, the more enjoyable the film becomes.

It also nails adolescence more generally. As someone who actually was a teenager in the 2000s (and looked almost exactly like the main character), this movie’s depiction is eerie. The drab emptiness and boredom that comes with growing up but not having an outlet with all of the emotion, confusion, and directionlessness is fully on display. The only other film I’ve seen deal with that aspect of adolescence also came out in 2007, but it’s a very different film, and we’ll get to that soon enough.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Everything.

How Did It Do?
I first saw Paranoid Park in film school, where I was definitely the only person besides my professor who found any significance in it, a reception that has not at all changed since it debuted at Cannes. The film was picked up for distribution by the cable television outfit IFC and made just $4.5 million worldwide. But it did get a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with a lot of the critics writing that they were just kinda hypnotized by it like I was.

I’ve often wondered why Van Sant’s “Trilogy of Death” isn’t considered a tetralogy with Paranoid Park as the fourth installment, but whatever. Van Sant had taken a long break from mainstream fare, and henceforth returned to Hollywood again like he’d never left, quickly releasing the 2008 biopic Milk.

Next Time: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A Mighty Heart (2007)

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A Mighty Heart
Dir. Michael Winterbottom
Premiered at Cannes May 21, 2002

In the winter of 2002, elements within Al Qaeda lured journalist Daniel Pearl into their hands by claiming to represent a radical cleric looking to be interviewed in Pakistan. Pearl was unapologetically Jewish, a descendent of one of the founders of Israel, and worked for the Wall Street Journal, which in a moment of perceived invincibility had bragged about its cooperation with the CIA. The Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, many of whom were close to Al Qaeda and blamed international Jewry for the September 11 Attacks, were often uncooperative in the search for Pearl before he was beheaded, probably by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Daniel Pearl lived in Woodland Hills, California, and his kidnapping and death were a huge blow to the Jewish community in Southern California, during several years that could charitably be called intense. In 1999, white supremacist Buford Furrow opened fire at a Jewish community center in nearby Granada Hills, killing one and wounding five. The September 11 Attacks happened two years later, and then this. My bar mitzvah and entire Jewish education was undertaken under armed guard. At the time, the Pearl killing didn’t mean as much to me as it does now; I thought that Journalists had always been targeted in wars; but the effect it had on the community was much deeper. A good man had been singled out. The bad times were not in fact behind us. Maybe they never would be.

At the time, Pearl’s wife Mariane, also a journalist, was pregnant with their son Adam, and became the face of the tragedy. That her account of this tragedy would be made into a film was inevitable, and the movie as advertised came off as another Oscar-bait prestige film made solely so Angelina Jolie could finally get taken seriously. I should’ve realized my mistake when the director turned out to be Michael Winterbottom.

Michael Winterbottom is essentially all that remains of the British film industry: a British filmmaker working in Britain, making movies for British audiences, with British money, that actually get seen by the rest of the world. He’s massively prolific, having directed 25 movies in 21 years, often with common themes (journalism, popular music, current events, left-wing politics, Northwest England, classic literature) but which can be extremely varied in tone and content, from westerns to farces, in a way that compares to Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh. Most importantly, if Michael Winterbottom is going to make a movie based on a real tragedy, he’ll treat it with respect.

And that’s what he does here. The film unsparingly takes us through the crisis, from Daniel’s disappearance to the efforts of Pearl’s fellow journalist (Archie Panjabi), and the American Diplomat (Will Patton) and Pakistani Police Chief (Irrfan Khan) trying to unravel the mystery while Mariane (Angelina Jolie) feels powerless to do anything, yet still resolved, all with such intensity as to suggest that it’s happening at the moment you’re watching it. And while many critics at the time dismissed Jolie’s presence in the film as distracting at best and racist at worst (or, if you’re Salon, borderline-fascist propaganda), it works with time. Yes, I see Angelina Jolie, but I think Mariane Pearl. She was Pearl’s choice to star and is probably the only reason the movie got made, and while her accent may vary from scene to scene, I believed her.

How Did It Do?
A Mighty Heart earned a 79% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, which is pretty good, but earned just $18.9 million against a surprisingly hefty $16 million budget; in both its critical acclaim and financial underperformance, it failed to justify any of the hype or handwringing surrounding it.

Next Time: Paranoid Park