2007 in Review

2007, as I’ve mentioned before, was an important year for me personally. It’s the year I started keeping a journal (I’m now on volume 23),  attained the rank of Eagle Scout, became a legal adult, and started getting to know all of you. It’s the year I started buying lots of books– as in, reading a new book every week, and not for school– and it’s the year I saw many of what would end up being my favorite films as an adult, and not just those that came out that year. It is, in essence, the year I became who I am, in a much bigger way than can be credited to any other year. So going back to revisit that time period was very gratifying.

But 2007 isn’t just my favorite movie year for my own experiences. Critics at the end of the year were often astounded by the wealth of great cinema that had come out– and of all different types. Some of these films, it must be said, haven’t aged well (Knocked Up, Juno, In the Valley of Elah, Spider-Man 3). And some may have aged well, but I simply disagreed strongly with critics (Once, Waitress, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But there’s still plenty out there for everyone, so it’s worth discussing what may have caused this year to be so good.

On February 28, 2008, the 80th Academy Awards ceremony was held and broadcast all over the United States. It was, without question, the lowest-rated Oscars telecast in television history, drawing in an amazing-in-any-other-context 32 million viewers. In the aftermath, most of the blame was placed with the idea that the nominees that year were too obscure and did not reflect popular tastes.

This is questionable; while it’s true that the overlap between audience popularity and awards recognition was almost nonexistent, that wasn’t a new phenomenon, and I challenge you to compare 2007’s nominees to those of 2006 or 2008 and say that their nominees were more mainstream. I was a senior in high school at this time, and I assure you that There Will Be Blood, Juno, and No Country for Old Men were major topics of conversation to a degree that not one of the previous year’s nominees (The Departed, Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, United 93) ever came close to.

In response to this criticism, the Academy in 2010 expanded the pool of Best Picture nominees from five films to as many as (but not necessarily) ten, so as to include more conventional blockbusters, but which also had the unfortunate side effect of conferring legitimacy on awful try-hard movies akin to 2007’s In the Valley of Elah and Rendition that received little-to-no awards attention from other bodies and would almost certainly have been forgotten. Ultimately, the two cancelled each other out, and the movies that would have won in a contest of five still ended up winning in the contest of ten.

This is not the only manner in which 2007 ended up shaping the cinematic landscape of the 2010s. By my estimation, almost all of the credit for the Oscars’ ratings failure belongs to the WGA strike. The strike struck a blow for organized labor at a time when its power was constantly being rolled back through deregulation, and raised the specter of economically-driven politics just in time for the Great Recession. The strike revitalized television talk shows, particularly those not hosted by strikebreaker Jay Leno, put a lot of creatives in touch with their fans, gave online video a level of currency and importance that it had never had before, and, by forcing networks to pad out their schedules with live news coverage, probably got Barack Obama the Democratic nomination in 2008. Yeah.

The strike is also the reason the legacy of 2007 would have to wait a few years. With its factory-type mindset, television was able to get right back to work in the spring of 2008 and start putting out new content in a couple of months. Feature films are single projects with a set beginning and end, and take a lot longer to make; faced with the strike, independent movies either took way longer to be finished or got cancelled outright, while the shrinking proportion of films produced in-house by major studios attempted to split the difference by maintaining their production schedules without finished scripts. If you’ve ever wondered why Quantum of Solace is so weird, or why Transformers 2 is somehow even worse than the first one, or why 2007 was such an embarrassment of riches while 2008-9– especially in America– were generally weak and shitty, this is why.

But something else happened: when all the fanfare and excitement died down, and the industry feebly attempted to move on, 2007 didn’t stop being the greatest movie year. A lot of what people had loved aged horribly and quickly, but there was more than enough under the surface to take its place. This stuck with critics, fans, and the industry in a way I’m not sure it could have if the following couple of years hadn’t been so rocky. So when Hollywood was finally back to where it had been before the strike, 2007 provided the model for where to go next. It was not a transformative year in terms of how movies were made in the same way that 1927 or 1953 or 2001 had been, but it was a step, building on the trends established six years earlier when 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings teamed up to completely rock audience tastes and expectations (and you better believe I’m writing about that someday). Waltz with Bashir (2008) is a 2007 movie. The Informant! (2009) is a 2007 movie. Nightcrawler (2014) is a 2007 movie. Hell or High Water (2016) is the 2007 movie. A generation of people are going to grow up with that legacy, and 2007 will never stop impacting audiences until movies cease to be made.

So, I started this project intending to review 23 movies. I ended up reviewing 143. Such is the power of 2007. It really is the best year in the history of film; I struggled to get everything I wanted even into the top twenty, and even with so many titles under my belt, whatever lists I have written below cannot be considered comprehensive. But strap in, because there’s a lot to unpack.

Top Seven Signs a Movie Was Made in 2007

  1. Please Mention the War!
    As seen in: No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming, Knocked Up, Reign Over Me, Taxi to the Dark Side, Sicko, A Mighty Heart, Postal, Rush Hour 3, The Invasion, The Kingdom, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, Man from Plains, Rendition, Eastern Promises, Reservation Road, The Kite Runner, Lions for Lambs
     

    No fewer than 19 out of the 143 films reviewed at least touched on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in addition to those films that use the conflicts or related conflicts as subtext, such as No Country for Old Men; or even critiques that inferred combat parallels where there probably were none, like I Am Legend. Afghanistan was the forgotten war at the time; Iraq was and had been the main focus up to that point; and there’s an unfortunate correlation between the amount of focus on the conflicts themselves and the quality of the films.Iraq was the first war in US history in which Hollywood contemporaneously produced major motion pictures critical of the conflict. But people were already sick of the war, they didn’t want or need these movies, and anybody who wasn’t completely high on the idea that this was “our Vietnam” and thus needed our Platoon understood why these movies didn’t make money.

    Studio executives somehow had the idea that because all those Vietnam movies came out years after the fact, we needed Iraq movies right this second. But how many of the great Vietnam movies are about politics? How many times in The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now do characters stop cold to make impassioned soliloquys about Containment Theory or Vietnamization? Not even Forrest Gump gives a shit. The only film I’ve ever seen that does is The Trial of Billy Jack, and that movie’s invocation of the war is basically terrible in all the same ways that Redacted and its ilk are. Relevance is overrated.

    Among dramas that were most focused on the wars themselves was a strange propensity to point out, apropos of nothing, that the media of the time were more interested in covering celebrity gossip than real issues. Although this was less true in 2007 than in the early years of the war, when most of these screenplays were written, it’s not a bad point to bring up, except that none of these movies are about the media, so it serves no real purpose except as an outlet for the filmmakers’ own frustration. Which these films mostly are as a whole.

  2. The Pussycat Dolls
    As seen in: Epic Movie, Norbit, Wild Hogs, Alvin and the Chipmunks

    Ever since Easy Rider, Hollywood has chased popular music trends to keep their movies relevant. But 2007 was not 1969, and much longer post-production schedules meant that studios increasingly had to roll the dice on the splashiest new artists of 2005 and 2006.
    Probably the least pathetic invocation of this year was Knocked Up’s inclusion of Lily Allen’s “Smile,” another one of those British singles that took the wider world by storm but made far less of an impact in America, boosted mostly by its ubiquity in movies and television of the time– I call it the Robbie Williams Effect.But far more egregious was cinema’s pathetic devotion to The Pussycat Dolls, a nightmarishly overexposed “neo-burlesque” girl group who had a fluke hit in 2005’s “Don’t Cha” and were laughingstocks by the time some of 2007’s worst movies continued to make jokes about their ubiquity.
  3. References to Contemporary Movies
    As seen in: Year of the Dog, Knocked Up, Postal, I Am Legend

    At the time of Knocked Up’s release, film critic Roger Ebert noted a strange growing tendency for new movies to reference each other in a stab at relevance, much in the same way they had long done with pop music. This wasn’t actually that common, leaving aside so-called “parody” Epic Movie, but it does seem particular to this year.
    The best use of this trope is probably a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it billboard for a nonexistent Batman vs. Superman movie in I Am Legend’s post-apocalyptic Manhattan. At 18, it probably would have annoyed me, but my older, more camp-friendly sensibilities adore when science fiction makes guesses about future popular culture.
    It would be easy to say Postal’s eye-rolling invocation of Brokeback Mountain is the worst offender of 2007– that’s Uwe Boll for you– so instead I’ll give that award to Knocked Up’s casual invocation of Spider-Man 3, a movie that is not as fondly remembered as director Judd Apatow might have hoped; it wouldn’t be so bad except that Apatow brings buddy James Franco on to advertise said movie as himself. Swing and a miss.

  4. The Velour Sweatsuit
    As seen in: Year of the Dog, Epic Movie, Disturbia, Georgia Rule

    As the current decade draws to a close, nostalgic reverence for the 2000s is just around the corner, and if we should expect any outfit to signify the horrible haute-garbage aesthetic of that time period in a single image, it will be the velour sweatsuit. The ultimate symbol of Bush-era decadence, it took an outfit that declared “I have given up on life” and made it the token outfit of arrogant rich girls and bullies. Shit like this is why we deserved the Great Recession.
     
  5. MySpace
    As seen in: Epic Movie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Superbad

    Although Facebook has won the day, MySpace in 2007 was the social network, and it showed no signs of letting up. Only Superbad gets away with referencing it, coming off now as charmingly dated rather than horribly so.

     

  6. Penguin Mania
    As seen in: Surf’s Up!, Good Luck Chuck, Encounters at the End of the World

    Following the coincidental success of George Miller’s Happy Feet and nature documentary March of the Penguins, Hollywood went wild for anything penguin-related, but it never paid off. Surf’s Up! is about penguins, Good Luck Chuck has a bizarre fixation over penguins, and Werner Herzog’s Encounter at the End of the World promises not to be about penguins but still manages to get them in there. 

  7. The Evils of Pubic Hair
    As seen in: Norbit, Good Luck Chuck, Walk Hard

    While aggressive pubic grooming was not unheard of within women’s circles in the 1980s and 90s, it exploded in the summer of 2001 after Brazilian waxing was featured on an episode of Sex and the City. Inasmuch as contemporary depictions of female nudity were available to a sheepish adolescent boy with a secret collection of 1950s erotica, the impact was immediate and jarring. Not only did bush disappear from movies, magazines, and HBO originals; by 2007, the very presence of pubic hair had become a signifier of untenable disgust. Except in Walk Hard, where it was just the result of inattentiveness to period detail, forgivable for a movie of it’s type. After the Great Recession made men and women alike cut down on razors, the furor over pubes mercifully receded.

Four Movies I Should Have Reviewed

There are way more than four movies I could have reviewed or even intended to but couldn’t, however these four are arguably the most essential:

  1. Fracture
    Dir. Gregory Hoblit
    Premiered April 11, 2007

    Fracture
    probably isn’t good or bad enough to have potentially made either of my year-end lists, nor was it a box-office smash or award winner. But of all the pictures I failed to review, it is almost certainly the most notable film of 2007 in hindsight. Anthony Hopkins reportedly gives yet another powerhouse tete-a-tete, this time with Ryan Gosling. The only reason it wasn’t reviewed is that I simply had no idea it existed, or perhaps forgot. The same cannot be said for our next candidate:
  2. Chop Shop
    Dir. Ramin Bahrani
    Premiered at Cannes May 21, 2007

    2007 had so many critically-acclaimed movies that there wasn’t enough room for each of them to have the impact they deserved, but nowhere that year is the relationship between critical acclaim and overall legacy than Chop Shop. Celebrated at Cannes, Ramin Bahrani’s portrait of growing up outside the system in a Queens junkyard earned a stunning 96% rating on RottenTomatoes, a place on Roger Ebert’s top ten films of the entire 2000s, and pegged Bahrani as the next big thing at the Independent Spirit Awards– only to earn less than a quarter of a million dollars globally and become so obscure that I couldn’t find it anywhere.
  3. The Wager
    Dir. Judson Pearce Morgan
    Premiered June 15, 2007

    Over the past several years, American multiplexes have been inundated with Evangelical Christian “faith movies” made defiantly outside the Hollywood studio system. Scorsese they are not– born of a religious movement that rejects internal conflict, these films are pure ego strokes for the converted who appreciate being agreed with, and leave mainstream critics either bored or reviled. The bulk of these productions come from the Arizona enterprise Pure Flix, whose first feature The Wager naturally debuted in 2007. Of course, Pure Flix has a strict monopoly as a distributor, so this film (especially as an early work) is nowhere to be found amongst normal streaming services.
  4. Redline
    Dir Andy Cheng
    Premiered April 13, 2007

    As much as creatives like to rag on studio executives, most of them go into their jobs out of a love of movies. The same cannot be said of Daniel Sadek, an Inland Empire real estate broker who helped cause the Great Recession. Before he could assist in the downfall of the American economy, though, he managed to destroy his own finances with Redline, a vanity project commissioned to showcase his collection of exotic cars, and which resulted in the destruction of several of them to the tune of millions in damages. The movie earned a 0% rating on RottenTomatoes and, were it more readily accessible for streaming or download, would probably have been featured on How Did This Get Made?

The Ten Worst Movies of 2007

10. Georgia Rule

every scene is played like a Pepperidge Farm commercial, with no regard to what is actually going on. Not only was this seemingly written by pod people, the movie comes off like director Garry Marshall didn’t speak English and had no idea what the actors were saying. By discovering a new definition of tone-deafness, Georgia Rule is definitely in the running for worst movie of 2007 so far.

9. Wild Hogs

This movie offends me as a man. It trades in all the same insulting male clichés that bad sitcoms use to balance their insulting female clichés (because that totally makes it better); this time with barely any women in the movie. Congratulations, Walt Becker, you made a movie that Reddit and Tumblr can agree on.

8. Norbit

…Norbit does have an important place in the history of Hollywood: it marks the point at which bad comedies became a genre unto itself, with their own tropes, visual style, and cadre of anonymous directors.

7. Redacted
Source of my first Roger Ebert North meltdown:

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.

6. Postal

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

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

5. Perfect Stranger

Perfect Stranger may not be exceptionally atrocious, incompetent, or offensive, but it is astonishing in its wrongheadedness: every creative decision was the the one least likely to result in an enjoyable or profitable film.

4. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

…this isn’t fun anymore. It’s an Uwe Boll movie. None of it matters, and the joke is on me for writing about it.

3. Bratz

This is the live-action Foodfight. This is the girly, juvenile Battlefield Earth. It’s not even so bad it’s good; it’s so bad that its very existence will amuse you to the point of giggling psychosis.

2. D-War

Honestly, there is so much wrong with the film that trying to point them all out is fruitless. If CinemaSins did a video on it, it would have to be at least twice as long as the actual movie. The special effects are about on par with Sharknado. The actors all speak in muttered monotone, and can barely be understood thanks to poor sound mixing. The fight scenes are more incomprehensible than the climax of Alex Cross.

1. Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

That this movie was made is not totally surprising. That it was ever shown in one theater, let alone received a genuine 1,121-theater wide release, is astonishing. The director appears to have made it with her family and a handful of friends, none of whom were professional actors. The film appears to have been shot on an early digital camera with bad focus, and is poorly lit when lit at all. I got some (unintended) laughs out of this, but mostly was bored out of my mind.

The best thing that can be said about Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour is that, if you squint really hard, it seems like something Harmony Korine could possibly have made on purpose.

And now, the jumbo-sized list you’ve all been waiting for…

The Twenty Best Movies of 2007

20. The Lookout

Often when we think of great movies, we think of stuff that grabs you from the first scene and carries you off in a thrilling passion of image and sound. The Lookout instead tricks you into thinking it’s a smaller movie, then gradually turns up the heat until, at the very end, you realize your heart’s racing.

19. Disturbia

No joke, this is one of the best movies of the year. It might not make the top ten when I’m done– hell, maybe not even the top 20– but that’s 2007 for you.

18. My Winnipeg

Too often, art is seen as the achievement of something that is beyond most of us. The greatness of My Winnipeg is that it is something we are all capable of; to reach back and speak in our own voices about the places that created us. And we should.

17. Eastern Promises

Let’s face it; if you were eating in a restaurant and Tony Soprano walked in, it wouldn’t be scary. These guys are another story. And the film keeps up this sense of terror by imbuing it with a constant sense of uncertainty; it’s never clear who is going to do what, but you know to expect the worst.

16. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

With each new development, the film reverses course, as if saying “wait, I need to go back and tell you this first,” creating an an increasingly twisted but expertly constructed tableau that’s equal parts Rashomon and Fargo.

15. Sicko

In spite of its influence, its impact, and its relative lack of ego, Sicko never quite matches the excellent pacing, sarcastic wit, or unfolding horror of Moore’s debut, Roger and Me (though it does still have all those things). But it is a close second, and while it may remain in the shadow of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, it is far better than either and far more worthy of your time.

14. Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War– the last film to be directed by the legendary Mike Nichols– would, in the hands of a lesser creative team, have been exactly the type of obnoxious awards-craving garbage that I have often struggled through in these final months of 2007. By all accounts, it’s still an Oscar Bait film– it’s just done by the right people.

13. Death at a Funeral

By its nature, Death at a Funeral was a divisive film for the critical elite. On the one hand, it was British. On the other hand, it presented a side of British comedy that was, in the naïve Anglophilic mind, distressingly unsophisticated…

12. Paranoid Park

…no film captured [the 2000s] more perfectly than Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park…

11. American Gangster

From a patient and unassuming first act, American Gangster evolves into an unlikely thrill ride that continues to top itself in its monumental audacity, not through high-octane action or gore, but in how far the story ends up going…

10. The Darjeeling Limited

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.

9. Sunshine

In an era that saw science fiction lose relevance in favor of classical fantasy, Sunshine is an utterly engrossing throwback to the darker, spiritually and environmentally themed sci-fi of the 1970s, and in turn feels much like a precursor to cult films like Moon and Beyond the Black Rainbow. What could have been a bloated ensemble piece devotes its 111-minute running time to being one of the darkest– and best– thrillers of 2007 so far, with an overall effect that can only be described as cosmically invigorating.

8. No Country for Old Men

in an era that saw all that our nation knew and loved called into question, it took the twisted minds of Joel and Ethan to assuage that fear with the understanding that life has always been nasty, brutish, and short. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming.

7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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.

6. Grindhouse

to watch either part of this double-feature alone, outside its gloriously schlocky conceit, is to miss the point.

5. Ratatouille

Ratatouille touched me in a way I did not expect. When it was released in theaters, I didn’t remotely get the hype. I believed it could be good for what it was, but truly great cinema? This? The cartoon with the rat who controls a guy like a puppet? To call it cute would be accurate but misleading, and neither the trailer nor my plot summary can do it justice.

4. Hot Fuzz

In 2007, when parody and genre tributes were either shallow, hateful, or cynically above-it-all. Hot Fuzz (and a couple of other films we’ll soon discuss) taught us how to mock with love…

3. Superbad

the teenagers act like teenagers. They don’t look 25 or have perfect skin or hair, or wear the latest fashions from Paris. They do not exist in the preordained, personality-based Apartheid state that high school is typically depicted as. They talk like teenagers. They swear incessantly like teenagers, but they’re also very clever like teenagers can sometimes be. And the whole film is permeated by a very teenage anxiety: the idea that everybody seems to know what’s going on except you.

2. There Will Be Blood

…[P.T. Anderson] made a brutal psychodrama epic with a three-hour run-time but minimal dialogue, mostly performed by a notoriously hammy method actor doing an over-the-top American accent, with a title lifted from a line from the trailer for Saw II.

Somehow that ended up being the best film of 2007.

1. Zodiac

Growing up, choosing a favorite movie was always impossible. The idea of a single film holding such a close place in my heart seemed unimaginable. Then I saw Zodiac.

So passes my review of the greatest year in the history of cinema.

Next Time: The greatest year in movie history that nobody remembers…

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

walk_hard

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Dir. Jake Kasdan
Premiered December 21, 2007

2007 was a big year for me. On March 27, I started keeping a journal after being caught in a tornado. On May 13, I created an online persona called “Monty Park” in a failed attempt to force my high school’s film club to help me produce a mockumentary of the same name– a fortuitous choice, as I became quite popular in my senior year when the WGA strike in the fall and winter made my YouTube videos a major source of entertainment– they’re all gone now. The same strike coincided with the sudden rise of television as a critically respectable artform on par with film; it wasn’t just a good year for movies, and that new climate inspired me to want to be a television writer. Soon after, I became an Eagle Scout. On December 18, I turned 18, registered for the draft, and registered to vote. Three days later, I belatedly celebrated my birthday by going alone to what is now the ArcLight Pasadena, seeing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and leaving disappointed.

My biggest regret from 2007, aside from getting banned from Starbucks, waiting too long to ask Justine Tran to the winter formal, and other general acts of cowardice and self-absorption with regard to the opposite sex, is not seeing more movies in the theater. My all-time favorite movie came out that year and I didn’t see it. I only saw eight films, which is still a high number for me, and the last of which was this movie.

My memory of seeing it is quite clear. Most of the jokes from the trailer– the best of them– weren’t in the film; always frustrating occurrence, and one that had led me astray on a previous birthday. At first I thought it was too silly at first, and too sincere at the end. A decade on, however, in a better mood, with a much deeper knowledge of the history of popular music, and with a new and painful familiarity with the 2000s’ particular brand of awards bait, Walk Hard is fucking hilarious.

The story begins at a concert in the present-day, as Dewey (John C. Reilly) looks back on his entire life before coming onto the stage one last time. In 1946, ten-year-old Dewey accidentally cuts his musical virtuouso brother Nate in an old-fashioned machete fight, and despite his father’s bitter insistence that “the wrong kid died,” vows to live the live the life that Nate never could– even though the incident “tragically” robs him of his sense of smell. At fourteen (and already played by John C. Reilly), he’s run out of town when his doo-wop song “Take My Hand” is lambasted as the work of Satan. But he soon becomes a runaway success as his song “Walk Hard” becomes a #1 hit. Soon after, he gets to know almost every major figure in the history of popular music, experiments with every drug the screenwriter could think of, leaves his perpetually pregnant teen bride (Kristen Wiig) for sexpot country singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), and suffers one career hurdle after another.

Walk Hard couldn’t have come out at any other time, parodying as it does the trend of middlebrow musician biopics that reached their apex in the 2000s with Ray and Walk the Line. In a year that saw its share of affectionate genre satires, Walk Hard is strikingly unrelenting in its skewering of such films’ attempts to conform a real person’s life into a conventional three-act structure, often by cloyingly linking events in the artist’s life to their work; the way screenwriters kinda grossly exploit the artist’s personal struggles for maximum pathos; the way filmmakers try to score progressive points by ham-fistedly portraying the recent past as harshly as possible; and how they try to link everything into popular historical narratives of the 20th century with questionable relevance. Walk Hard knows the musician biopic game so well that it managed to parody movies that didn’t exist yet, such as Love & Mercy and Get On Up.

But that’s not even the half of it; Walk Hard is endlessly quotable, though it would be pointless to include every great line in this review, as it would be to name every mismatched actor who drops in to play someone famous. Although directed by Jake Kasdan, Walk Hard is an Apatow production, and it’s the only one that justifies Mr. Apatow’s obsession with celebrity cameos. It runs out of steam a little bit after Dewey experiences a Brian Wilson-esque mental breakdown, but only because the first half of the film was outrageously funny while the second half is only reliably so.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Real 1950s groupies definitely had pubes. The ones here did not. No, I’m not letting this go.

Additional Notes
John C. Reilly has an absolutely lovely singing voice. In fact, the film’s original songs meet the Neil Cicierga/Flight of the Conchords standard of funny songs that are also genuinely good.

Please watch the original theatrical cut and not the “unrated” edition, which kills the pace of many of the best jokes.

How Did It Do?
Walk Hard got a pretty-good 74% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. It was also a box-office bomb, grossing just $20.6 million worldwide against a $35 million budget. And while I’m surprised by quite how badly it did, I get it. Walk Hard failed for the same reason Grindhouse failed: they are movies for movie nerds, people who go to the theater every week but are always outnumbered by the yokels who go maybe five times a year. I have been both of these, so no judgment; Walk Hard isn’t the type of movie that needs to be seen on the big screen for full effect, and I think was Sony was willing to take that loss; it didn’t cost very much, producer Judd Apatow had done extremely well for them that year, and in Hollywood, even corporate executives are generally people who like movies. So it’s hard to feel too bad about its financial disappointment.

It’s also hard to feel bad because the movie keeps on giving. In the decade since Walk Hard’s release, musician biopics have largely failed to evolve beyond the formula that it parodies. This is also why, Straight Outta Compton nonwithstanding, they are much harder for critics and prestige industry groups to take seriously. Hell, Get on Up, a James Brown biopic from 2014, used the same framing device as Walk Hard without a second thought, and got away with it three years ago, but now an generation of critics who were growing up in 2007 have begun writing and they find it impossible not to laugh. Imagine a western made after Blazing Saddles where someone earnestly says “head them off at the pass!” Now imagine 80% of westerns made after Blazing Saddles doing that. That’s what musician biopics are doing now, and it is why Walk Hard remains evergreen.

Next Time: 2007 in Review

The Bucket List (2007)

bucket_list

The Bucket List
Dir. Rob Reiner
Premiered December 16, 2007

The Bucket List is not a good movie. It was trashed by critics. It is consistent with director Rob Reiner’s work, which to date consists of a decade of classic films followed by a much longer ongoing period of outright garbage. And yet the term “bucket list” lives on.

Elderly Los Angeles mechanic Carter (Morgan Freeman) is diagnosed with cancer. Despite chemotherapy, he is given months to live. At the hospital, he gets an unexpected roommate: Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), the hospital’s fabulously wealthy owner and an elder playboy, who is forced to stay with Carter for public relations purposes as his privatization program is alleged to reduce the quality of care. In 2007, even The Bucket List needed to get a little political.

The two men couldn’t be more different, but when Edward discovers Carter’s “bucket list,” an unfulfilled list of dying dreams from his college years, he’s intrigued and decides to bring Carter along on a trip around the world to cross everything off the list.

The term was coined by the film’s screenwriter, Justin Zackham, who wrote his own as a young man, and developed it into a screenplay not long after. That the script was written in the late 1990s is unsurprising; The Bucket List is an exemplar of “feel-good” movies– slick, star-studded dramedies with low stakes that supposedly warmed the heart and jerked the tears. Films like this constituted the bulk of studio releases from the mid-1990s until the 9/11 attacks made their brand of tacky sentimentality deeply unpopular.

But The Bucket List is also evocative of a new type of inconsequential dramedy: the “Old Guys Rule” movie, usually a rom-com, in which a litany of A-list geriatrics from the days when big stars were the key to high grosses prove they’ve still “got it.” I have yet to see one such film in this generation that is good. The Bucket List’s script is full of hokey dialogue and inconsistent characterization, surprisingly one-note peripheral characters (Sean Hayes as Edward’s beleaguered assistant feels like a shrill imitation of a similar character in The Darjeeling Limited). But the film’s main sin is that which it shares with almost all feel-good movies: it’s boring.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
Edward watches a Dodger game on network TV, with Vin Scully as host.

Additional Notes
A man of Carter’s generation went to college– presumably in the 1950s, when only 6% of American men had degrees– and he’s still an auto mechanic?

How Did It Do?
The Bucket List grossed $175.4 million against a $45 million budget, and perhaps earned a place in the English language, but critics at large did not take to its vaguely curmudgeonly brand of Canter’s in-house schmaltz, earning it a 40% rating on RottenTomatoes.

No great filmmaker has ever hit such a wall as Rob Reiner. Once having batted 1.000 with classics This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, and Misery, he has spent the last 25 years trying and failing to recover critically from the disaster of North. In the decade-plus since The Bucket List, Reiner’s releases have slipped further into obscurity, though no closer to the acclaim he once earned.

Next Time: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

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National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Dir. Jon Turtletaub
Premiered December 13, 2007

First, an apology in order: I had to take a break from these. I got a job and a life, and also a roommate who just got out of a long period of unemployment involving lots of TV-hogging. But now I’m back.\

After Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did unexpectedly well, The Walt Disney Company gave action maven Jerry Bruckheimer free rein to produce a long-gestating project by Disney vet Jon Turtletaub (3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, etc.). Released in 2004, National Treasure is a family-friendly take on conspiracy thrillers and Indiana Jones knowledge quests with a patriotic twist, sending fringe historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) on a journey to steal the United States Declaration of Independence and use it to find buried Masonic treasure before the baddies can do the same for profit.

By the time of National Treasure’s release, America had gone wild for Dan Brown’s airport potboiler The Da Vinci Code, necessarily inviting comparisons. For my money, National Treasure did it better by not taking itself so seriously, much in the same way as Disney had done with The Three Musketeers eleven years earlier. But it’s still a wasted opportunity: the first act is terribly paced, Nicolas Cage is pointlessly restrained, and while his sidekick Riley seems to have been written in the mode of “sarcastic Ryan Gosling” (albeit long before such a thing existed), Justin Bartha underacts like a high schooler doing Hamlet. As a whole, it’s inoffensive but undercooked, and I found myself reacting much as I did to the Giro D’Italia starting in Jerusalem: with informed indifference.

Most critics felt the same, but National Treasure made a healthy enough profit to get the go-ahead for one sequel, which at the time was probably for the best and brings us back to 2007, and Cage’s third starring role of that year– yet another disappointment.

Despite improving on many of the first movie’s criticisms– Cage gets in plenty of trademark mugging, and the character of Riley is better calibrated to match Justin Bartha’s persona– National Treasure: Book of Secrets is so contrived and convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The story begins with Gates’ revelation to a historical society that his great-grandfather Thomas died protecting a hidden treasure from the slaver conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. That is until shadowy Southern gentleman Wilkerson (Ed Harris) reveals a long-lost page from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary suggesting that Thomas was actually one of those collaborators.

Desperate to clear his ancestor’s name, Gates uncovers a cipher that leads him to yet another lost treasure: a buried city of indigenous gold sought after by the Confederates and now their descendant Wilkerson, who has brought a team of mercenaries to make sure that he alone will find the treasure and reclaim glory for his family.

While the groundwork for the plot is laid out, movie curses us with the same soft reset that everyone hated in Ghostbusters 2, in which our heroes have become either morons or unaccountable jerks offscreen so they can start over just as lonely and broke as they were at the beginning of the first movie. But why? The only people hoping to profit from the first movie’s treasure were the villains, and no one at all is trying to do that this time around. Likewise, Gates and Abigail’s (Diane Kruger) breakup– which, despite not being a divorce, results in Gates being kicked out of his own house– has no real impact on the characters’ relationship, only serving on occasion to flimsily overcome some minor plot obstacles.

And boy, does that plot pile up. The plot of National Treasure had just three locations and two artifacts which, once found, always stayed with the characters. Here, MacGuffins, characters, and entire schemes flit in and out directionlessly as the characters stumble through a rollercoaster of contingencies and detours, including a minor but trailer-friendly scheme to kidnap the US President (Bruce Greenwood). Between this and some tortured digressions into “cute” romantic squabbling by both Gates and his parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren), the baddies disappear for extended stretches, and virtually everyone’s motivations and goals get lost.

Likewise, the movie’s hyperactive tendency to bring in even more worldly locations opens some gaping plot holes, and happily calls attention to them: first our heroes get ticketed for using a drone in Paris, but then the baddies chase them through London, causing massive damage, with no consequences. Later, the team is pursued across Washington for kidnapping the President, but then find their way to South Dakota without incident.

While National Treasure augmented the American mythos with its own quirky fable, Book of Secrets actively misrepresents it in order to accommodate its ramble of a plot. This movie seems convinced that the Confederates not only could have won the war, but always could have won. Thomas Gates stopped Lincoln’s assassins in order to end the war, despite the South having already surrendered. Queen Victoria is discovered to have wanted to help the Confederacy in order to protect access to southern cotton (no) even after the South had been starved into submission. It also thinks the Lakota were hanging around Mount Rushmore in the 16th Century. Perhaps these are nitpicks on my part, but they speak to a disrespect for history that the first movie, mediocre as it was, fought tirelessly to avoid; and a desperately lazy approach to writing that should not have been surprising from the couple who penned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and G-Force.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Borders, again. Everyone– everyone– has Moto Razr phones.

How Did It Do?
National Treasure: Book of Secrets grossed $457.4 million against a $130 million budget, far exceeding the original to become the 9th biggest movie of 2007. Despite this success, and a low-key sequel hook in the film’s epilogue, plans to continue the franchise have continued to stall long after interest in the series has declined. That may have to do with the poor critical reception, especially in the UK where it was assailed for implying British sympathies toward the slaveholders of the Confederacy. Ultimately, the picture earned a damp 35% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a couple of Razzie nominations.

Next Time: The Bucket List

Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

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Alvin and the Chipmunks
Dir. Tim Hill
Premiered December 13, 2007

You know that game where you describe a pop culture phenomenon to highlight how weird it is, and everyone is left wondering how it ever caught on? Alvin in the Chipmunks has to win every time, because it’s never stopped being weird.

In 1958, an upstart entertainer named David Seville (real name Ross Bagdasarian) recorded a Christmas novelty song and then sped it up so he could claim it was being sung by a trio of chipmunks. This isn’t the strange part– between Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys was this horrible period where rock and roll almost died as soon as it first showed up, and novelty songs were freakishly popular.

The weird thing is that Alvin and the Chipmunks kept going. Bagdassarian managed to keep his rights to the characters and his son wisely deployed them in the ‘80s when they became a piece of boomer nostalgia and could be introduced to a new generation. The nice thing about making entertainment for kids is that everything is new to them, so the market was evergreen for new records, cartoon series, and even an animated feature in 1987, which makes 2007’s live action film yet another instance of double-nostalgia.

True to form for such an underdtaking, Alvin and the Chipmunks is ostensibly an origin story, but doesn’t really explain anything. Even in their secluded woodland home, leader Alvin (Justin Long), token nerd Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and oafish Theodore (Jesse McCartney) speak, sing, and endlessly reference pop culture in the spirit of Shrek, yet the film’s universe is utterly mundane and grounded, which might work in a more absurdist comedy, but is meaningless in a movie with barely any jokes and no laughs.

The story begins as the Chipmunks’ tree is cut down to be used as a Christmas tree in the lobby of JETT Records, where struggling songwriter Dave Seville (Jason Lee) is trying to wow his record executive friend Ian (David Cross) with a hot new song. It’s also revealed that Dave also works in advertising, but only in a single unaccountable scene with no bearing on the rest of the movie.

After stowing away with a basket of muffins, the Chipmunks reveal themselves to Dave, who isn’t nearly as shocked by the existence of talking chipmunks as he is frustrated with their messy habits (including an instance of eating shit). Dave begins to warm to them when they reveal their talent for singing, and attempts to harness their skill to present Ian with the new sound he’s been looking for, but they get cold feet, and Dave finds the boys’ familial attachment offputting. Don’t worry though, this is just padding, as Alvin and company go to Ian themselves and get a hit song on the radio within hours. Naturally, Ian then takes the Chipmunks on a whirlwind tour of boy band excess, milking every ounce of life out of them until they wish to have Dave back.

Or so the plot dictates; nothing onscreen ever lands, because no one involved in the film seems to have cared. Each element of the movie seems to have been conceived separately in a vacuum and then executed by a uniformly indifferent cast and crew, which might be a first in this series.

Where Bagdassarian himself voiced the original Chipmunks, director Tim Hill and company were compelled to give the roles to more prominent actors with little to no voiceover experience, despite the fact that their voices are altered beyond the point of recognition– like George Clooney voicing a dog on South Park, except not a joke. But even this is a failure as there’s nary a household name to be found: Justin Long (previously seen in Live Free or Die Hard) was best known as “A Mac” from Apple computer commercials, Jesse McCartney had been a moderately successful child actor and singer-songwriter, and Matthew Gray Gubler had had only two credited roles before this.

And then there’s the special effects: not to sound like a broken record, the film’s use of CGI is atrocious. The chipmunks’ character design is an unnerving compromise between cartoonish expressiveness (owing more to early Dreamworks than the original cartoon), realistic rodent fur and body type, and nightmarish “relatable” human eyeballs. It’s often challenging to articulate the difference between good and bad CGI, but our protagonists present a refreshingly straightforward lesson in what can go wrong.

For his part, it’s not surprising that Jason Lee can’t interact with imaginary beings– we can’t all be Ewan McGregor, and the movie’s unusually static cinematography and blocking suggest that not even Hill knew where the Chipmunks would ultimately appear in the frame. But even when he doesn’t have to imagine, Lee gives one of the worst performances of his career, always projecting but steadfastly refusing to emote. When Bagdassarian’s Seville screamed “Alviiiiiin!” it was meant to recall a harried and probably abusive stage father. When Lee screams, it’s practically under his breath, and the supporting cast offers no help except perhaps David Cross, whose contempt for the project shines through in a vaguely entertaining manner.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film opens with the Chipmunks singing Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” itself a bland, unappealing pop cultural product that somehow reached inescapable popularity. Simon’s classic round glasses are replaced with narrow rectangular David Tennant-style frames. And in the fourth and final Pussycat Dolls reference of 2007, Alvin sings “Don’t Cha” in the shower.

How Did It Do?
Alvin and the Chipmunks grossed $361.3 million against a $60 million budget to become the 14th-biggest film of 2007 and to date has spawned four sequels– sorry, squeakuels. Critics unsurprisingly reviled the film, earning it a 27% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Philips said the movie “…goes in one eye and out the other…” so I look forward to quickly forgetting it.

Director Tim Hill started in the world of Nicktoons before making a career of critically-loathed nostalgia-driven adaptations that live action with animation, and unfortunately this isn’t the last we’ll see of him if I keep doing retrospectives.

Next Time: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

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Charlie Wilson’s War
Dir. Mike Nichols
Premiered December 10, 2007

To those of you who are familiar with the Cold War, or who are currently watching The Americans, the story of the Soviet War in Afghanistan and its contribution to the end of the Soviet system itself will be familiar. You will recognize the famous photographs and remember movies like Red Dawn and The Living Daylights urging western support for Afghanistan’s freedom fighters, the Mujahideen. If you’re an underinformed jackass (or film critic Bob Mondello, who read way too deeply into I Am Legend), you’re probably getting ready to tell me that we were supporting the Taliban. But what you might not know, at least not until the release of Charlie Wilson’s War, is that none of it was supposed to happen, which is what makes this story so fascinating– fun, even.

In 1980, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a hard-partying Democratic congressman from Texas who becomes obsessed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and particularly the U.S. government’s perplexing unwillingness to fund the Mujahideen. Turns out he has a few kindred spirits: well-connected Texas socialite/activist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts); and CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is relegated to the meager Afghan desk after lashing out at mistreatment by his racist boss (John Slattery). On a fact-finding mission in Pakistan, Wilson not only witnesses the Afghani refugee crisis firsthand, but discovers that the Americans are deliberately ignoring the war, allowing the Afghanis to be slaughtered until the Russians hopefully run out of bullets.

Together, Wilson and Gust conspire to arm the Mujahideen. Wilson is convinced that he can raise all the money they need because he is part of the Congressional committee in charge of writing the CIA’s classified budget, and knows his efforts will go unnoticed while he’s under investigation for using cocaine. From there, and with the help of Wilson’s dedicated assistant (Amy Adams) and Amazon brigade of busty interns, they struggle to forge an agreement between the United States, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt to give the Mujahideen the weapons they need to strike back at the Soviets.

Charlie Wilson’s War– the last film to be directed by the legendary Mike Nichols– would, in the hands of a lesser creative team, have been exactly the type of obnoxious awards-craving garbage that I have often struggled through in these final months of 2007. By all accounts, it’s still an Oscar Bait film– it’s just done by the right people. Sorkin, whose show The West Wing mined the vagaries of government for comedy as often as it did for drama, gives the film a much-needed sprinkling of levity, such as a surprisingly drawn-out scene wherein Wilson attempts to discuss covert funding with Gust but makes him leave the room over and over while his staffers alert him to news concerning his latest scandal.

Tom Hanks, meanwhile, is the only actor who could conceivably have played Wilson the way he was written. Any other performance would have played him in such a way as an unintentionally repulsive corrupt chauvinist, or at best a troubled antihero. Hanks nails it, playing Wilson as he truly was: an effortlessly charming rogue with a litany of vices but a heart of gold and an iron will, and you can tell he really had fun with it. Meanwhile, Gust isn’t that far off from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s other roles in 2007, but it’s easily his most likable role of the bunch, playing the agent as a bitter do-gooder who can dish it out as well as Wilson can. Julia Roberts’ accent may be off the mark, but she too is convincing as a well-meaning if questionably motivated high society-type. Really, all the main characters are outcasts of a sort. And that’s not to mention terrific performances by any number of minor and supporting actors.

There’s no shortage of people who tell you that the freedom fighters we supported in Afghanistan went on to become the Taliban– just read the YouTube comments on the trailer. In fact this is a shameful and insulting myth perpetuated by a mixture of fashionable third-worldist Anti-Americanism and casual racism. The Mujahideeen we supported were the Northern Alliance, the ones we put in power when the Taliban were ousted. The film knows this. It is more unapologetic for our covert war in Afghanistan than any film made since the Cold War. But it doesn’t shy away from our abandonment of the country, and the horrors that decision wrought.

In high school, I was required to read the People’s History of the United States by controversial far-left historian Howard Zinn. In an updated foreword to the book, Zinn writes that “the terrorists hate us” not for our freedoms, as conventional wisdom dictated at the time, but because we deny our freedoms to others. Now, as then, I believe Zinn was still stuck in the Cold War mindset and unable to appreciate the nature of our conflict. But in Charlie Wilson’s War there may be found a grain of truth in such statements.

Another book I read in high school, of my own choosing, was Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a comprehensive history of American involvement in the Middle East by Israeli politician Michael Oren, in which he states that the United States is the only country in the world that has, however rarely, acted beyond its own apparent self-interest. We did not act so kindly toward Afghanistan after the Cold War. By the film’s end, Wilson is a changed man, morally driven to honor our commitments to the people we helped take back their country; unfortunately, he’s the only one left– without an enemy to fight, upholding the promise of freedom and order isn’t seen as cost-effective.

Charlie Wilson’s War is a deceptively conventional film. The closest comparison I can think of is Ben Affleck’s Argo. But Argo was distinctive in how it juxtaposed espionage and Hollywood satire; the actions in Charlie Wilson’s War are not unusual, merely audacious. However, the film surpasses its mundane trappings through Aaron Sorkin’s script (and let’s be glad he was working in a director’s medium this time), wonderful performances by everyone involved– big names and small– and a refreshingly sober take on the political realities of the conflict in question. And– take this as you will, I’m no isolationist– it is a cautionary tale that needs to be seen more today, in a new age of delicately shifting alliances, a resurgent Cold War, and millions of refugees fleeing unimaginable horror, than any time since its release.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
In an effort to demonstrate how far from the public mind Afghanistan was at the time, one of Wilson’s staff mistakes the country with Uzbekistan. In the 1980s, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, and no independent country of that name had ever existed.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $119 million, Charlie Wilson’s War was the 49th biggest film of 2007 and the 40th biggest worldwide, but was hobbled by a $75 million budget. But critics were all over it, earning the picture an 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and earning Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In light of its subject matter, many were quick to ascribe present-day subtext to the film– for some, like CinePassion’s Fernando Croce, this was actually a dealbreaker. When interviewed about this in Time magazine however, Tom Hanks shot down any such suggestions, out of a respect for history…and a well-earned desire to distance the film from the rash of disastrous movies that year which had been overtly critical of US policy abroad.

Most notably though, Charlie Wilson’s War was the last directorial effort by eclectic all-around entertainer Mike Nichols, who will show up in these retrospectives again and again– if you ever watched old movies on HBO in the middle of the day as a kid, I guarantee you’ve seen at least four of his movies. Nichols died in 2014, but I’m glad he got to go out on a high note like this one.

Next Time: Alvin and the Chipmunks

I Am Legend (2007)

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I Am Legend
Dir. Francis Lawrence
Premiered December 5, 2007

Once upon a time, I was really excited about this movie. I was days from turning 18 and looking for a good movie to celebrate with. And here we have Will Smith, idol of nineties kids everywhere, returning to the action-adventure genre, tearing around a lushly rendered vision of an abandoned New York City reminiscent of Alan Weisman’s recent bestseller The World Without Us? What could possibly go wrong?

And then cinephiles everywhere raised hell over the film’s supposedly terrible ending, so I ended up not going to the movies for my birthday.

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Not a movie theater

Watching it now, I am actually kind of heartbroken. The late 2000s and especially 2007 were decidedly light on science fiction, and in the right hands, this could have been nearly as good as Sunshine. Instead, I began enthralled with a flawed but well-constructed movie, and finished in a state of righteous anger.

Based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, previously adapted into several movies I haven’t seen, I Am Legend opens on the promise of a retroviral drug that can cure cancer. Smash cut to an abandoned, overgrown landscape three years later. It’s a startling introduction, if very obviously inspired by 28 Days Later.

In the year 2009, Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson) believed she had found a genetically-modified viral treatment that can cure cancer. However, most of the recipients died suddenly, and those who didn’t were progressively transformed into hive-dwelling vampire-like creatures. Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) tried to find a cure, but was unable to do so before New York City was quarantined, his wife and daughter were killed in the evacuation, and the virus became airborne.

Neville, naturally immune to the virus, has continued his work for three years, hunting game in Times Square, harvesting corn in Central Park, and scavenging the deserted apartment blocks of Lower Manhattan with his german shepherd Sam. Seemingly close to a cure, but steadily losing his grip on reality, he kidnaps a young vampire for use as a test subject in his lab, provoking the hive into a conflict that may cost him what little he has left.

From there, the movie hits a brick wall.

I Am Legend shares interesting parallels with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion. Both 2007 films were based on 1950s science fiction allegories, both capitalize on a timely fear of pandemic disease, and both give us cop-out endings that trade a poignant conclusion for an easy out that misses the point. However, The Invasion was already a shitty movie before it revealed that being a pod person was now curable; it was inconsistently written, miscast, and cheap-looking. I Am Legend, while far from perfect on a technical level, still could have been good. It almost was, but the studio’s insecurity over a tragic ending kept it from ever getting close.

In the original story by Richard Matheson, the vampires (and they are much more explicitly vampires in the book) are intelligent, and Neville is simply blinded by fear of the new society they have created. He’s arrested and sentenced to death for what is essentially genocide, and accepts this as just punishment, realizing that he is the monster that haunts their nightmares. He is legend. It isn’t Night of the Living Dead, it’s Falling Down.

I Am Legend doesn’t start out completely in that direction– in the detail-oriented language of film, it’s hard to balance Neville’s frightened first impressions of the vampires with their true nature. Nor is it visually perfect; the CGI, whether used to depict vampires, wild animals, or tracking shots of Neville driving around New York, is jarringly sterile and weightless. But the first half is expertly paced and edited, and Will Smith does some of his finest work in years. The intensity and buildup in the first hour should be the envy of filmmakers everywhere.

Indeed, the film originally ended similarly to the book (if not similarly enough for my tastes), with Neville realizing that he’s basically their Mengele. But test audiences didn’t like it, so they went with noble self-sacrifice and fiery, characterless explosions. It doesn’t just clash with the book, it clashes with the tense fatalism of the rest of the movie. You can see the scars of reshoots when Smith suddenly seems to phone it in, or when his conversations with newcomer Anna (Alice Braga) run in hastily-written circles. Ironically, I Am Legend is tragic because it chooses not to embrace tragedy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Broadway shows on offer during the pandemic include Hairspray, Wicked, and Mamma Mia!

The most bizarre part of this film is in the background: one of the ads in Times Square is a logo teaser for an upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, which wasn’t in pre-production at that time. My theory is that Warner Brothers, which produced I Am Legend, expected 2006’s Superman Returns to be a bigger deal than it ended up as, and intended to cross it over with the Nolan Batman films…and that theory is wrong, but not that far off.

How Did It Do?
I Am Legend nevertheless managed to become the 7th-highest-grossing film of 2007, earning $585.3 million against a $150 million budget. This is notable for a few reasons, but perhaps most notably that it succeeded as middlingly hard science fiction in a decade when fantasy had largely pushed it aside.

You can see this in the critical response to the film: with a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, most critics were in awe of its 28 Days Later-style genre mixing and most of all its ambition, a sense of weight and import that lent itself to some questionable interpretations. Bob Mondello, clearly addled by an autumn full of dreadful foreign policy critiques, insisted that the vampires were clearly an allegory for the Taliban, an unintentional product of America’s own effort to combat something else.

This popular butchering of American policy, in the public mind and in Hollywood, would happily be rectified by the next film.

Next Time: Charlie Wilson’s War

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Dir. Tim Burton
Premiered December 3, 2007

This is going to sound weird, but this is the hardest review I’ve had to write for this project. And that’s because while Sweeney Todd has a lot going on, at least in terms of its creation, it also leaves little impact. So forgive me if this comes off as a little perfunctory and dry.

Sweeney Todd was originally a character from an early Victorian penny dreadful, which was adapted several times over in theater and film before being turned into a Broadway musical in 1979 by Stephen Sondheim, which itself was adapted by Tim Burton into this film. I know Tim Burton gets shit for essentially digging himself deeper and deeper into his own firmly-established aesthetic, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s his own doing or the studio’s. But I digress.

Sometime in the 1820s, London barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is sent to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit, a sequence of events orchestrated by the vile Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Twenty years later, Barker returns to London with his young sailor companion Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) seeking revenge under the pseudonym Sweeney Todd. Returning to his abandoned shop, he learns from his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a maker of dubious meat pies, that his beloved wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) was raped by Turpin and then poisoned herself, and that their daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has since become Turpin’s ward.

As it happens, Anthony sees Johanna in Turpin’s window and falls in love with her at first sight, attracting Turpin’s fury but emboldening Anthony to rescue her. And when a former apprentice of Barker’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) tries to blackmail Todd, Todd slashes his throat, his corpse becoming the latest ingredient in Mrs. Lovett’s pies– launching yet another business scheme.

What can I say about this film? I liked it enough. It had a clever story, lots of darkly humorous moments, a fun cast. It reminded me of the Coen Brothers in certain ways. The emotional connections may seem a little silly today, but it’s all appropriately Victorian. It’s Sondheim, so the songs are all good; they’re not exactly standalone hits, but not everything can be West Side Story. If you like musicals and you aren’t totally burnt out on Tim Burton’s possibly studio-imposed schtick, check it out. I ranked it 49th out of all the films I watched for this project (between Son of Rambow and Dan in Real Life), and that seems about right.

Additional Notes
I’d like to give thanks to Minnie, who hates musicals and suffered through this with me, but didn’t find it terribly bothersome. For what it’s worth though, actual fans of the musical seem to utterly hate this movie, claiming it removes a whole lot of good music and the majority of the play’s humor and pacing and doesn’t totally make sense.

How Did It Do?
Theater fans’ intense reservations about the film was not reflected by audiences or critics, as Sweeney Todd grossed $152.5 million against a $50 million budget and earned a “certified fresh” 87% rating on RottenTomatoes. At the risk of making excuses for consensus opinions I disagree with, one can’t help but recall the similar response to Hairspray during that past July, the effusive celebration over the return of “unapologetic musicals.” But then again, I found it alright, so whatever.

The film won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo) and was additionally nominated for Best Actor (Johnny Depp) and Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood).

Next Time: I Am Legend

The Golden Compass (2007)

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The Golden Compass
Dir. Chris Weitz
Premiered November 27, 2007

As mentioned in my review of Stardust, The Lord of the Rings created a very top-heavy media environment based on adaptations and remakes of recognizable properties– an environment that is today showing its cracks as Hollywood struggles to find more such properties, and equally struggles to balance the needs of the adaptation process with the expectations of an increasingly demanding fan base. I also mentioned that The Lord of the Rings briefly gave the impression that fantasy as a genre was suddenly profitable in Hollywood, which it wasn’t.

The Golden Compass is emblematic of both of those issues, having been greenlit all the way back in February 2002, just two months after the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by the same studio that had made that film, New Line Cinema. It then went through a long, troubled development, with writer/director Chris Weitz repeatedly being sent to the drawing board over concerns that his adapted screenplay wasn’t marketable in the United States.

The reason for that is probably the best-known thing about this movie. The Golden Compass was adapted from part of a book series called His Dark Materials, written in the 1990s by British author Philip Pullman, whose main villain, the Magisterium, is allegedly a stand-in for religion in general. For this reason, Weitz was ordered to tone down the atheistic message for fear of generating controversy. Of course, that happened anyway: almost every Christian group in America, Protestant or Catholic, spoke out against the film, and the country being significantly more religious in 2007 than today, this bad buzz supposedly turned The Golden Compass into a failure.

I seriously doubt this theory, as not only was His Dark Materials pretty obscure in the US to begin with; the film just plainly sucks. Watching it, I immediately understood what was wrong, and it just kept going.

The Golden Compass is set in a parallel world to our own, roughly analogous to a futurized version of the 1930s, in which a mysterious cosmic element known only as “dust” causes human souls to manifest in the form of intelligent spirit animals known as daemons. Because the dust has yet to settle on children, their daemons have the power to change form before deciding on a final adult incarnation, but there are machinations afoot to prevent the dust from taking hold altogether.

I will try to explain this inasmuch as the film explains anything at all: the Magisterium, our stand-in for the Catholic Church, wants to suppress the study or application of dust by restricting scientific research and using technology to sever the psychic link between children and their daemons. In service of this, children all over the world are being abducted by bandits known as Gobblers and sent to a research facility/prison in the Arctic.

The leading researcher into dust is Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is sent away from Jordan College due to his views and vows to study dust on his own, possibly uncovering the secret of parallel worlds. Soon after, Asriel’s orphan niece Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (Freddie Highmore) are sent into the care of the mysterious and glamorous Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Before leaving the college, however, one of Asriel’s sympathetic compatriots gives Lyra the last surviving Golden Compass, a cosmic Magic 8-Ball powered by the dust; though the knowledge required to use it is long lost, Lyra takes to it immediately, the film implying that she is the subject of a “witches’ prophecy.” Yep, another YA chosen-one.

After being paraded around what appears to be this world’s version of London, Lyra escapes from Coulter, who is leading the Gobblers, and is rescued by a band of Gyptians (think Gypsies crossed with Vikings) who themselves have lost a child and are on a mission to the Arctic to find him. On the way, Lyra meets pilot Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), whose services are needed to reach their destination, as well as Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), the exiled former king of a race of talking warrior polar bears who seeks to recapture his throne from Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane), who is himself seeking a human-style daemon. She also runs in with Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), one of a race of witches who briefly implies she is Lyra’s mother, but this is confusing in itself for reasons I won’t spoil.

If you’re noticing a lot of high-profile actors in here, it’s not for nothing. Jim Carter, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christopher Lee, and Derek Jacobi additionally show up in minor-to-medium roles, and this gets at the first problem with the film: everything is super-rushed. I didn’t read the first book, but I’m guessing it was way longer; every new character is introduced suddenly, yet with a sense of majesty and revelation suggesting a lot of buildup that never happened. Weitz allegedly did as much as he could to stay loyal to the book, but that’s more of a liability than an asset with a runtime under two hours.

The second problem is that I’m fairly certain the book is a lot darker and more violent than would strictly be allowed for a movie aimed at kids– i.e. it has blood. The film by contrast is an achievement in bloodless carnage, straining credibility by omitting any sign of the precious red fluid even in scenes that demand it, such as when one character’s jaw is torn off.

The third and perhaps largest problem is that it’s incomplete, with a ton of characters and plot threads being introduced without even the hint of resolution. After doing some research, I discovered that not only is The Golden Compass the first of a series, it omits the somewhat fatalistic final three chapters of the book it’s based on (Northern Lights) in the hope of giving audiences a happier ending, and presumably leaving the rest for sequels that would never come. The resulting product gives the impression that New Line was totally confident that the film would do well enough launch a franchise, yet also terrified that the book’s atheistic themes would kill its success. Ultimately, both expectations proved wrong.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
Meta Edition! Catholic and Protestant groups were united in opposition to this film. Today, anti-Catholic sentiment is making a fashionable comeback in America, and the former Moral Majority would probably delight in the movie’s anti-clericalism.

How Did It Do?
At $372.2 million worldwide, The Golden Compass was the thirteenth highest-grossing picture of 2007. That should not be considered a failure, and yet it is. First, it had a mindblowing $180 million budget, equivalent to those of the first two Lord of the Rings movies combined, and thus barely broke even. Second, it made a pitiful $70 million the United States– virtually the only country where it wasn’t a hit, but also the home country of New Line, severely undermining the business world’s already-waning confidence in the company.

Nevertheless, taking the business receipts at face value would suggest that the only problem was that American audiences were presumably too dumb and puritanical to appreciate the movie. Unfortunately, critics tell a different story: The Golden Compass currently holds an anemic 43% rating on RottenTomatoes, with the words “rushed,” “underdeveloped,” and “convoluted” being thrown around a lot. This time, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone got the last laugh, declaring that it merely sucked irrespective of any theological controversy around it, that Nicole Kidman was a better villain in Margot at the Wedding, and that she and Daniel Craig were just as “good” here as in The Invasion. Bless you, Travers.

Shortly after The Golden Compass’ release, Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson, producer Saul Zaentz, and fifteen cast members all filed suit against New Line for accounting practices intended to conceal profits and thus avoid paying them residuals. You read that correctly: New Line was alleging that The Lord of the Rings had never made money, nor had any of its major franchises. This is not unheard of in Hollywood; New Line’s parent company Warner Brothers still maintains that Goodfellas has never turned a profit, and the guys behind This Is Spinal Tap are suing StudioCanal for the same (if they win, it would likely end the practice, which is still somehow legal).

The embarrassment over this movie was the last straw: New Line’s founders resigned and the studio was shut down, henceforth existing only as an alternative marketing label for Warner Bros. To recap: The Golden Compass brought down the studio that created it and its entire genre. If that isn’t a failure, I don’t know what is.

Next Time: Sweeney Todd

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)

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Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Dir. Zach Helm
Premiered November 15, 2007

I wasn’t going to review this originally. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was mocked by critics. It lost an unconscionable amount of money.

But Minnie loves it. So I asked her to review it with me.

The titular Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a dandy Ed Wynn-ish 243-year-old who operates a magical toy store in New York City. However, he is now dying– not for any specific reason; it’s just time to go– and intends to leave his store to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), whose fear of pursuing her dream as a concert pianist has kept her in a state of arrested adolescence.

To this end, Magorium gives Mahoney a wooden box known only as the “Congreve Cube” in the hope that it will help her find the magic within. At the same time, he hires a seemingly humorless accountant named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to arrange his affairs, leading Henry into an unexpected friendship with nine-year-old loner Eric (Zach Mills).

Minnie: I love this movie. I love its vibrancy, its surprisingly age-appropriate commentary on death, its absurdity. I find the colorful madness of the movie to be so visually arresting that I find myself frequently overlooking its narrative missteps, and I find an incredible nostalgia in the childlike enthusiasm that is reflected by all of the characters, most conspicuously and unrealistically, the adult ones. Most of the reasons why people hate this movie are the reasons why I think its good. It’s busy, it’s childish, and, in all, it has a dubious relationship with reality.

Sam: I think that’s why I find it so frustrating. It goes in circles a lot, and I actually find the conclusion kind of horrifying in the same way as we both felt about Knocked Up. Mahoney has this dream and vision for her life, and the ultimate moral is that she doesn’t get to choose? The end of the movie is all about believing in yourself, but really it’s saying to believe in what other people think of you.

Minnie: I disagree. I think that there are dueling problems that Mahoney faces as a result of her not believing in herself. The first is her dream of being a pianist, and the second is her sadness that she cannot save the store she loves because she lacks the requisite magic. In the end of the movie, when she finds the magic in herself, I don’t think the implication was that she bent to peer pressure and abandoned her dreams for her friends, but rather that she found the confidence (or as they say with utmost disgustingness, her “Sparkle”) to pursue whatever dreams she has.

Sam: But she won’t be able to pursue those dreams, because now she’s going to run the store. I’m actually really surprised the movie went in that direction, as I felt the narrative was actually setting up Henry as this Mr. Banks-type who was going to rediscover his sense of fun and take over. Everyone wins!

This isn’t horrible, believe me. I’ve seen some bad movies on this project. But this movie makes some very odd choices. First, it has this framing device where the whole story is being told by the kid character Eric- or rather not. At the beginning of the movie, Eric narrates how he’s actually reading the story of Mr. Magorium’s life as written by his biographer Bellini (Ted Ludzik) who lives under the store. But Bellini doesn’t factor into the story at all; he doesn’t even have lines.

Minnie: I will not defend Eric’s narration, especially in announcing chapter titles that serve more as spoilers than actual markers, it is pretty awful. He isn’t a very good actor and his voice is not particularly interesting, and every time he starts to speak, I think to myself, “Oh Lordy, this again.”

Sam: The whole setup weirdly reminds me of the last movie Zach Helm worked on, Stranger Than Fiction.

Minnie: The real problem that arises in narrating this story like Stranger Than Fiction is that its main character was literally a character in the narrator’s book. In Mr. Magorium, there is no need for the book structure whatsoever. As you noted in multiple parts of the movie, it could have been taken out and nothing would have changed.

Sam: Stranger Than Fiction is one of my favorite movies, and it has some common elements with this film, but in a way that makes me wonder if Helm misunderstands his own strengths as a writer– granted, he’s not nearly as bad as Richard Kelly, but with Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium he definitely seems to display a similar one-size-fits-all approach to different stories.

How Did It Do?
Mr. Magorium grossed $69.5 million against a $65 million budget, all but squandering its marketing, and earned a 38% rating on RottenTomatoes. The film entered wide release on the same weekend as Enchanted, inviting a choir of dismissive comparisons by critics; Richard Roeper openly fantasized about Amy Adams’ Princess Giselle passing the titular emporium on her arrival in New York and dismissing it as cartoonish.

Even writer/director Zach Helm disowned the film, calling it a “technicolor trainwreck” in a 2013 interview. He refuses to watch it ever again, and has never directed a feature film since.

Next Time: The Golden Compass