The Golden Compass (2007)


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)


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

Beowulf (2007)


Dir. Robert ZemeckisPremiered November 5, 2007

Good fucking Lord.

The release of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf in 2007 was serendipitous for me, as I was studying the original text in 12th grade English. I didn’t see it, and it wouldn’t have been any help, but it was there. Beowulf was an odd choice of film to make: it’s an early medieval epic poem with an episodic plot and no real theme except “Beowulf is a badass.” In order to bring some measure of coherence, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary had written a script for Beowulf in 1997 that highlighted some of the silliness of the poem, which comes off a bit as a really long Bill Brasky sketch.

When the script failed to be produced, Avary gave it to Robert Zemeckis, then in the midst of the “CGI nightmare” phase of his career, a period that gave us the textbook example of the Uncanny Valley, The Polar Express. Zemeckis was keen to use motion-capture animation for this film as well, planned to make it a 3D film, and had the script extensively re-written to suit an unlimited budget. The result is about what you’d expect.

In 6th century Denmark, the merrymaking of old King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is disturbed by a demonic abomination named Grendel (Crispin Glover). Hrothgar sends out a call to any champion who can kill Grendel, and from across the sea, the legendary hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) answers, and quickly gets the job done. Grendel’s death causes Beowulf to run afoul of the water demon that birthed him (Angelina Jolie). Intending to kill her, Beowulf instead lets her live and fathers another child with her in exchange for the promise that he will be the next King of Denmark, which promptly happens.

Decades later, Beowulf’s demon-child returns to Denmark, terrorizing the kingdom in the form of a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf ultimately defeats the dragon, but is killed in the process, and subsequently remembered for all time.

There’s a lot more to this than I’m willing to get into, as the film makes a big deal of the abandonment of the Norse Gods in favor of Christianity (200 years too soon), and there’s a lot of random sexy times– the compromised version of the script is not great. But the movie’s structural problems are nothing compared to its hideous visuals. Just like The Polar Express, all of the characters (closely resembling the actors who voice them) look like dead-eyed zombies. Aside from human figures, everything moves too flowingly. The action is weightless and hollow. The nudity is offputting and out of place (and considering Angelina Jolie’s involvement, a wasted opportunity). And that’s to say nothing of the horrible, piercing noises that pervade the film.

When one considers what Hollywood can do in terms of effects, there’s no reason for this to be CGI other than Zemeckis’ insistence that he could be the man to bring back 3D– which he didn’t; James Cameron did. The final result is a nauseating assault on the senses and the mind, less Beowulf than God of War, with all that implies.

How Did It Do?
A non-technical flop, Beowulf grossed $193.4 against a $150 million budget. Despite a surprisingly positive response from critics (71% on RottenTomatoes) the lack of return on investment led Zemeckis to give up his mo-cap dreams after the completion of his version of A Christmas Carol, which was already in the works at this time.

Next Time: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Bee Movie (2007)


Bee Movie
Dir. Simon J. Smith and Steve HicknerPremiered at London October 28, 2007

Bee Movie is exactly the kind of film you’d expect from Dreamworks at the tail end of its mission to make fun of Disney and particularly Michael Eisner. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a movie whose trailer contained no footage from the actual film. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a film where Jerry Seinfeld attempts to play an actual character. And it’s exactly what you’d expect from the kind of movie that got product placement on 30 Rock. Let’s talk about it.

Seinfeld plays Barry Benson, a recently graduated bee looking to start his career in the honey business. Faced with the terrifying prospect of doing the same job forever, he goes outside the hive with the elite “pollen jocks” (led by Rip Torn) and ends up in the home of kindhearted florist Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger), who saves his life. Barry then breaks bee law by thanking her, revealing that bees can talk. While Barry’s friendship with Vanessa alienates her highly allergic boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton), his discovery that humans have been enslaving bees to produce honey starts a lawsuit for the ages, with unexpected consequences of its own.

Bee Movie is weird; everything about it suggests that this went through many, many drafts, none of which were satisfactory as a whole. It’s not terrible, but it’s definitely not good.  It varies from a re-hash of Dreamworks’ debut animated feature Antz, tries for consumerist satire, parodies courtroom drama with weird racial overtones, and then ends up as an environmental fable that inadvertently endorses slavery. It even gets a parting jab at Disney when Winnie the Pooh gets shot with a tranquilizer gun (meaning yes, Winnie the Pooh is a sentient being in the “real” world presented here).

While the film has its share of veteran voice actors (notably Patrick Warburton as Ken and John Goodman as the defending attorney), it’s far from their best work, and the biggest celebrity voices are severely wanting. Renée Zellweger is the worst, however, awkwardly rushing through her lines in a manner reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s uncharacteristically horrible performance in Robots.

You might reasonably suspect that Bee Movie was the type of long-gestating project that went through a lot of replacement stars– you might easily imagine Will Smith, John Travolta, Matt Damon– before landing on Seinfeld. And you wouldn’t be more wrong; despite all appearances as haphazardly constructed, endlessly retooled, compromised contractual obligation of a film, the whole thing was Seinfeld’s idea, he conceived it, co-wrote it, and filled the production with alums from his show. Maybe if Seinfeld co-creator Larry David had been one of them, it might have been less unfunny.

Bee Movie defies understanding as the misguided passion project it truly is: heavy on plot but light on story, having some decent jokes but never building to a coherent whole, and borrowing so blatantly from other animated films as to be little more than a self-parody.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Almost all the dated cultural references take place in the courtroom segment. John Goodman’s attorney character accuses Barry of being on steroids, and researches by reading The Secret Life of Bees. Barry spouts puns about Halliburton and Enron, and references the Build-A-Bear Workshop.

How Did It Do?
Bee Movie grossed $287.6 million, failing to break even against a preposterous $150 million budget, and a marketing budget that featured product placement for an entire episode of 30 Rock in its critical prime. It was Dreamworks Animation’s least successful film at the time since Shark Tale, which is appropriate on so many levels. It got a divisive 51% rating on RottenTomatoes, with the bulk of positive reviews praising it to high heaven as “not as terrible as most other mainstream animated movies,” but today is remembered only as a punchline, if at all.

Normally, it would end there. But Bee Movie’s perplexing embarrassments continue: Dreamworks was accused of violating implied-in-fact contract by a team of Swedish animators who had presented a similar idea to the studio in the early 2000s, but could not find a lawyer to represent them in the US. Dreamworks was however sued by a cosmetics company for using their trademark phrase “give bees a chance” in the film. They settled out of court. Surprisingly, Dreamworks wasn’t sued by the advertising firm responsible for promoting the anti-allergy drug Nasonex, whose TV commercials’ similarities to the film’s premise were pointed out by the typically pop-culture illiterate Time magazine.

Jerry Seinfeld went back to just being himself, which is for the best.

Next Time: Beowulf

Dan in Real Life (2007)


Dan in Real Life
Dir. Peter Hedges
Premiered October 26, 2007

Why are you all so obsessed with this movie?

Dan in Real Life was heavily advertised in October 2007, though not in a way that said much about the film, promoting it essentially as a vehicle for Steve Carell at (to date) the height of his stardom. The obscuring of the film’s actual plot suggested it wasn’t good.

What’s more, that very month I became part of the fledgling commentariat at the website The A.V. Club, among which Dan in Real Life became memetically beloved. I assumed this was ironic, but no, the critical consensus was generally positive, emphasizing the performances and heralding a romantic comedy “for grownups.”

The titular Dan is widower Dan Burns (Steve Carell), a advice columnist for his local newspaper who’s under consideration to become nationally syndicated. With no social life, Dan pours most of his energy into a steadfast refusal to accept that his three daughters (Alison Pill, Britt Daniels, and Marlene Lawston) are growing up.

Invited to spend Thanksgiving weekend (I think) with his large family in Rhode Island, Dan steals away to a bookstore where he becomes smitten with the effortlessly charming and patient Marie Diamond (Juliette Binoche), only to discover that Marie is in fact the new girlfriend of his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook). What Marie sees as an innocent mistake weighs heavily on Dan, whose awkward attempts to keep his distance only bring the two closer together.

Dan in Real Life, while I acknowledge is good, is really not my kind of movie. Luckily, I watched the film with my mom, who is a total sucker for depressing movies about familial dysfunction in New England (one such film, Pieces of April, was also directed by Peter Hedges). The choice to set a character-based romance in a sea of characters is questionable; trying, it seems, to split the difference between a small rom-com and a big ensemble holiday film. But for the most part, it works, especially the chemistry between Carell and Binoche, as well as endearing turns from John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest as Dan’s parents (not unexpectedly, the weakest link is Dane Cook as Mitch). I still don’t get the hype, but it was pretty damn solid.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Dan frets over his second daughter Cara’s (Britt Robertson) colorful underwear and butt-emblazoned ultra-low-rise designer sweatpants. Becoming a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist is still lucrative.

Additional Notes
Goddamn, this movie is white. This family plays football together, puts on a talent show. If another person tells me that Jews are white, I am going to play them this movie.

How Did It Do?
Dan in Real Life grossed $68.4 million against a $25 million budget and earned a 65% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Most critics found the film pleasant enough but wished it had been more daring with its subject matter. Essentially, it did well but not well enough to warrant any particular interest, hence The A.V. Club’s ironic obsession with an imagined sequel.

Next Time: Bee Movie

Youth Without Youth (2007)


Youth Without Youth
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Premiered at Rome October 20, 2007

In the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was one of the most famous directors in the world, having produced a string of critically and commercially outstanding works. Since then, he’d seen varying but diminishing success leading into a ten-year hiatus from filmmaking. Youth Without Youth was his attempt at a comeback. I had never heard of it. And even after watching it, I don’t know what to think.

Adapted from the 1976 novella by Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth begins in 1938 Romania, where the elderly orientalist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) leaves his provincial university for Bucharest. To his colleagues and students, he says he is going to take advantage of the capital’s more extensive libraries, but in reality he has become disillusioned with his professional and personal failures and plans to commit suicide. Arriving in the big city, however, he is struck by lightning.

Matei’s recovery causes him to become decades younger, making him a figure of fascination to Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz). When Matei begins engaging in philosophical conversations with his mirror image and evinces spontaneous (if rarely implimented) magical powers, he becomes the target of the encroaching Nazis, and is pursued to Switzerland by the demented Dr. Josef Rudolf (André Hennicke) and a nameless, seductive spy (Alexandra Pirici).

Many years after the war, a still youthful Matei, living under the name Martin Audricour and seemingly resigned to his existence as a boddhisattva, has returned to his life’s work of uncovering the origins of language when he rescues a young woman named Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) who Matei’s mirror image reveals to be the reincarnation his long-departed 19th-century girlfriend Laura. When Veronica awakes, she is possessed by a fellow boddhisattva called Rupini, who is taking control of Veronica and regressing back to the birth of language.

This film is…difficult. Difficult to understand, if there’s anything to it in the first place; quite a lot of the film contains unsubtitled dialogue in German, French, Italian, Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian, and a language of Matei’s own making. But also difficult to take seriously, as the production values leave something to be desired. Though most of the time the film is totally conventional-looking, there are many sequences in which cinematography suggests cheap digital cameras were used, awkward Lifetime movie editing, and a poor grasp of Adobe AfterEffects. A surprising amount of the film is shot upside-down. There’s quite a lot of terrible ADR. It almost feels as if Coppola and his cinematographer made furtive, noncommittal attempts to emulate German Expressionism, or failing that, Guy Maddin. And yet it’s somewhat watchable.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Veronica in 1955 is somehow wearing low-rise slacks.

Additional Notes
Swastika-embroidered lingerie. That’s in this non-exploitation movie.

How Did It Do?
Youth Without Youth grossed just $2.6 million against an undisclosed budget and earned an anemic 31% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Francis Ford Coppola is the Chumbawamba of directors; few filmmakers have shifted their work so radically and with such regularity. And after being reduced in the 1990s to a director-for-hire on films like Jack, there’s a temptation to assume that he lacks credibility in Hollywood. But like Chumbawamba, Coppola seems to be perfectly happy making obscure art movies for indifferent critics. We should be so lucky.

Next Time: Dan in Real Life

Enchanted (2007)


Dir. Kevin LimaPremiered at London October 20, 2007

I remember a time before there was such a thing as a Disney Princess. Of course, Walt Disney Animation Studios made a few movies based on fairy tales with princesses in them, but they were always a small portion of WDAS’ content, and for the thirty years leading up to my birth, they didn’t make any movies like that. Furthermore, they were just that: movies based on fairy tales that happened to have princesses in them. But with the studio’s sudden return to respectability, mostly on the backs of fairy-tales, themes began to emerge. And usually, there had to be a princess.

Sometime in the late 1990s, it happened: backpacks, jackets, all pink, all showing the various “princess” characters, or just any female protagonists, from the Disney Animated Canon, together at last in their anachronistic, artistically clashing glory; the type of undiscerning nostalgic pastiche that characterized the Eisner era. It was this repackaging that made the “Disney Princess” ripe for parody by the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. Luckily, the period that saw Eisner finally ousted was one in which media companies were increasingly comfortable poking fun at their public image (see Rock, 30), and Disney did not disappoint.

Enchanted begins in the animated land of Andalasia, where the evil queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) plots to keep the throne by preventing her dashing stepson Prince Edward (James Marsden) from meeting his true love. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not supposed to.

Unfortunately, Edward has already met and intended to marry the humble but good-hearted and multitalented Giselle (Amy Adams). Fearing for her grasp on power, Narissa pushes Giselle into a magical fountain which transports her into a much darker world– ours. And when Edward follows her in, Narissa sends her infatuated minion Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) to kill her.

Suddenly confronted with the harsh reality of 21st century New York City, Giselle is rescued by Robert (Patrick Dempsey) a divorce lawyer and single father who’s engaged to fashion designer Nancy (Idina Menzel) and has a fashionable distaste for fairy tales.

I first saw Enchanted with my first girlfriend, not long after it came out. I thought it was enjoyable enough, but eight years and a serious nerd upgrade later, Enchanted comes off as way more impressive. Merging two distinct eras of Disney Animation, the character archetypes and plot are reminiscent of the films from Walt’s era, while the animation style and music are pure ‘90s. And it’s full of clever little details: at one point, Edward vanquishes a troll that makes the Goofy scream. Later, he watches TV and sees Edgar Bergen’s bit in Fun and Fancy Free. A bunch of former Disney Princesses make cameos. And in a surprisingly dark bit of self-awareness, Robert’s widowhood means his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) is yet another princess (of sorts) without a mother.

The movie still could’ve fallen flat, however, if not for its cast. Nobody but Amy Adams could’ve played Giselle straight, unselfconsciously throwing herself into the role like a little girl and bringing immense likability to what could’ve been another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Similarly, James Marsden is perfect as overconfident doofus Edward; I laughed almost every time he spoke in the film. He really is one of those actors who are funny but too handsome to be recognized for it on a more than occasional basis, but here he gets his chance and runs with it. The weakest link here is Patrick Dempsey. His performance is perfectly fine, but I can’t help but imagine Robert being played in an earlier era by Tom Hanks or even Billy Crystal. And while Susan Sarandon plays Narissa expertly in live-action, she spends most of the movie as a cartoon, during which I can’t stop picturing her recording her lines in the studio.

If Enchanted has one problem, it’s that it does its job so well, deconstructing the fairy tale mythos while enjoyably celebrating it, then spends the last few minutes leaping right up its own ass. When the climax arrives, Enchanted suddenly becomes so pleased with itself for subverting the Disney Princess brand as to give the impression that the filmmakers genuinely thought they were breaking new ground, as if (a) the audience hasn’t been watching a parody this whole time and (b) the rest of the world hasn’t already called attention to it. But it’s surprisingly short-lived, and Enchanted still gets a heartfelt recommendation.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Giselle’s transformation to real-world beauty involves getting her hair straightened.

Signs This Was Written in 1997
The film still stereotypes New Yorkers as unfriendly.

How Did It Do?
Enchanted grossed $340.5 million against an $85 million budget, and earned a stellar 93% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Critics, it seemed, were shocked that Disney not only managed to create a genuine family film– not a kids’ film movie with pop culture references for mom and dad, but a movie that could be enjoyed as a whole by people of all ages– but did so at a time when the rest of Hollywood had vainly struggled to do the same. And no fewer than three of Alan Menken’s compositions for the film received Oscar nominations for Best Original Song.

Disney needed Enchanted in 2007 in the same way it needed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988; a promising reprieve after the years of Eisner’s joyless paranoia. WDAS returned to its bread and butter of blue-chip folklore adaptations, but one begins to wonder if the company is a little too obsessed with self-deconstruction. This was, after all, the first of many Disney properties to have a tiresome, winking one-word adjective title. But it was worth it for this.

Next Time: Youth Without Youth

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour (2007)


Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour
Dir. Lisa Comrie
Premiered October 19, 2007

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour is a miracle. It is the worst movie I have ever seen. I almost don’t want to review it on principle, because it isn’t even fit to be a made-for-TV movie on basic cable in the early 1990s. All but one of the “actors” in this film have no other credits, meaning that I am a more accomplished actor than the entire cast. And rightfully so.

The plot is impossible to follow, partly because it’s mind-numbingly complicated, partly because I never saw any of it; the film is such an achievement in telling and not showing that they might as well have not bothered using a camera…or sound equipment for that matter, as none of the actors speak as if they understand a word of English. I’ll put it as simply as I can:

Sarah Landon (Rissa Walters, with shades of Juliette Danielle in The Room) is distraught from the death of her childhood friend, and is invited by the deceased’s grandmother (Jane Harris) to spend some time in the small town of Pine Valley.

There, Sarah meets brothers David and Matt (Brian and Dan Comrie), who tell her a story from the town’s sordid-ish past. Many years ago, their cousin Johnny was killed in a car accident. Johnny’s father, their uncle Ben (Rusty Hanes), blamed David for the accident and vowed to kill him on his 21st birthday, but died shortly after. David became obsessed ever after with the “Paranormal Hour,” and fears that Ben’s ghost is haunting him, waiting, while Johnny possesses the body of a new kid in town. Sarah’s involvement in any of this is nonexistent, and yet she is our hero. The film, incredibly, ends on a sequel hook.

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. That doesn’t mean it’s watchable, because I would’ve gotten an F if I’d turned this in in film school. Or high school. Or middle school. Probably elementary school, too. This can only be, by default, the worst film of 2007.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
It’s on Sarah’s friend’s tombstone.

How Did It Do?
Despite appearing at no festivals and having a totally unknown cast and crew (even by the standards of first-time indies), Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour was picked up for distribution by Freestyle Releasing, a fly-by-night operation also responsible for introducing North America to In the Name of the King, D-War, Delgo, some of PureFlix’s recent output, and astonishingly Me and Orson Welles. Nobody knows why this movie was greenlit for wide release, but online speculation suggests that Freestyle found the title attractive due to its remote similarity to those in the Harry Potter franchise.

Released into the single-busiest opening weekend in the history of American cinema (alongside 30 Days of Night, Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, Things We Lost in the Fire, The Comebacks, and an animated Ten Commandments), Sarah Landon grossed $858,415. It received a rare 0% rating on RottenTomatoes, with Mack Rawden of CinemaBlend diagnosing it as “a bloodless, PG-rated snuff film.”

No information could be found regarding the promised sequels.

Next Time: Enchanted

American Gangster (2007)


American Gangster
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered October 19, 2007

I didn’t have the highest expectations for American Gangster. Ridley Scott may have directed some of the best movies ever made, but aside from his beloved throwback epics (of which Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven are the good ones), he doesn’t have much of a signature style, and accordingly many of his lesser films that aren’t as immediately associated with him. And liked by critics though American Gangster was, advertising and discussion at the time gave the impression that it was little more than a common mafia film but with black people instead of Italians.

After watching the film, I realize that that in itself is notable, but it goes way deeper. Despite American Gangster sounding like a generic movie title, it could not be more apt, as the film unfolds into a fascinating examination of race and capitalism as they play into the American dream; one that seems even more relevant today than it did in 2007– and it’s all a true story.

In 1968, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) is the Italian mafia’s point man in Harlem. When he dies of a heart attack, he leaves a small fortune to his driver and apprentice Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Despite Lucas’ humble origins, he witnesses the decline of black businesses as corporate chains take over, and comes up with an inspired idea: in the apex of the Vietnam War, he can use his military connections to import heroin directly from southeast Asia, selling a superior product with lower overhead costs. This quickly brings Lucas a level of wealth on par with a CEO, and he eagerly plays the part of a legitimate businessman, hobnobbing with the rich and famous along with his former beauty queen wife (Lymari Nadal) but never showboating. His success from “Blue Magic,” his purer, cheaper brand of heroin, causes him to run afoul of the old Cosa Nostra, as well as New York’s narcotics cops– almost all of whom are on the take and in the business themselves (led by Detective Nick Trupo, played by Josh Brolin).

One police officer who defiantly isn’t is Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Practically forced out of the narcotics beat due to his unwillingness to partake, Roberts is snatched up to become a key player in President Nixon’s newly declared War on Drugs. He and his team gradually realize that Lucas is somehow involved in the trade, but only Roberts himself is willing to believe that Lucas is at the top.

Unlike many other classic gangsters, Lucas prides himself on looking legit. He renounces the crass behavior of his rivals. He buys an old mansion imported from Europe brick-by-brick. He chides his reckless brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for his garish style– though it’s sometimes hard to distinguish in a 1970s setting. When he confronts rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) over Barnes’ use of the name “blue magic,” he doesn’t talk about threats of violence, but of trademark infringement. He deals with government bureaucracy as well– he just does it outside the law. And, above all, he uses his newfound largesse to benefit his family and community.

Although the film doesn’t hesitate to show the devastating effects of his business, and although film has long drawn parallels between organized crime and the American Dream, Lucas’ seductive charm is not without its merit (though it helps that he’s played by Denzel Washington, of course). And when Roberts suggests that the War on Drugs isn’t really meant to stop drug use, it being too profitable to both the criminal enterprises and the criminal justice system, it’s not just a sigh of exasperation– it’s an object lesson in the benefits of free trade.

American Gangster never claims to be about race, but it necessarily is. As a black man making it on his own and paying it back to Harlem– a race man– he arouses the fury of the Italians and the narcotics cops who serve them, but they can barely do more than stand idly by while he steamrolls them with his superior intellect and leadership. But while Lucas continually faces prejudice, he also uses it to his advantage, as the authorities, in their refusal to believe that a black man could be a kingpin, constantly overlook him. Is it any surprise then that the only cop who believes in Frank Lucas’ empire is the Jewish Richie Roberts? Maybe not a member of the underclass, but certainly someone raised in a tradition of outsider status and lateral thought.

If that sounds dry and academic, fear not. 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, climaxing in a mesmerizing and long-awaited face-to-face between Lucas and Roberts. I don’t want to spoil it; just watch this movie. Shot in standard 16:9 ratio, American Gangster may not technically fit the bill for a Ridley Scott epic, but it sure as hell feels like one.

How Did It Do?
American Gangster grossed $266.5 million against a $100 million budget, earned an 80% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Ruby Dee) and Best Art Direction (Arthur Max and Beth Rubino). It’s somewhat fallen through the cracks among Ridley Scott’s output, even among his very hit-and-miss later years, but deserves to be remembered.

Next Time: Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

Lions for Lambs (2007)


Lions for Lambs
Dir. Robert Redford
Premiered October 18, 2007

“Oscar Bait” is not as old of an idea as it might seem. Emerging in the final days of the New Hollywood, and reigning supreme by the early 2000s, it’s generally agreed that Academy voters will give awards to movies that do certain things: a late release, a period setting, an A-list cast, tackling an important issue but not so much as to court controversy, bonus points for involving the film industry itself. And because those invited to join the Academy are disproportionately actors, the awards are the only reason Hollywood keeps making melodramas.

Most Oscar Bait films are good-but-not-great; I’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose favorite movie was The English Patient or A Beautiful Mind. But what fascinates me most is failed Oscar Bait– Pay It Forward, Flash of Genius, The Life of David Gale, the ones that try way too hard to be important and prestigious and end up being maudlin and gross. To that ignoble canon I would like to add veteran Oscar darling Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs.

Contemporary politics has rarely been a welcome presence in film in 2007, but Lions for Lambs is the most out of its depth by virtue of its own self-importance. It tells three stories, all revolving around America’s forgotten war in Afghanistan: First, Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a favorite for the upcoming presidential race. Irving is the point man on a new strategy in Iraq that has unfortunate echoes of Vietnam.

Meanwhile, at “A California University,” Political science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) invites promising underacheiver Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) for a chat about Todd’s future. Todd’s interest in politics is waning, but Malley will give him a solid B grade if Todd’s enthusiasm can just be rekindled. Malley does this by telling the story of his previous students Ernest and Arian (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), whose sense of duty for collective participation and change was so great that they enlisted in the army and ended up serving in Afghanistan. At the same time, Ernest and Arian are actually in the field, and stranded on the side of a mountain controlled by the Taliban.

Lions for Lambs is uncommonly short at 88 minutes, and about a third in the way in I realized that this was going to be the entire film: Roth bickers with Irving over partisan politics, Malley lectures Hayes (and by extension us) about young peoples’ apathy– ironic at a time when youth voter participation was surging– and Ernest and Arian writhe around in the snow in the vain hope that their predicament carries any weight whatsoever; all in real time.

Many choices in the film’s production are perplexing: the choice to label all new locations, even placing a title card reading “Office of Professor Stephen Malley” over a sign on the door that says the same thing; literally all of the dialogue sounds painfully rushed. But it’s Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script that bears the most responsibility. For a movie about government, education, and the military, Carnahan seems to know nothing about any of the above. Redford as Malley acts more like a high school guidance counselor than any professor in his attempts to micromanage and cajole his students. He also tells Todd that he’s more privileged than Ernest and Arian; stating that they had violent, educationally impoverished upbringings on no evidence except that they are non-white. Other students, presented in flashback, argue with each other in class one-at-a-time, in a manner that could only happen if scripted. Todd, for his part, constantly calls Malley “Doc.”

Irving inexplicably gets live updates on his Afghanistan strategy; he also chides the media for being too critical, then rails against it for being blindly jingoistic. His strategy involves the threat of invading Iran, something which is heavily emphasized in the beginning of the film but never again. This attempt to throw every conceivable partisan talking point at the wall results in nonsensical speeches peppered with name-drops of recent historical events, somehow comparing 9/11, Rwanda, and Somalia, and even referencing the POW-MIA mythos. In response, Janine raves like a crazy person about Irving’s perceived eagerness to start nuclear war because he says he’ll do “whatever it takes” to take down the enemy– surely not a phrase any politician has said before without meaning nukes.

Lions for Lambs is far from the worst or most irritating prestige film of this year– though it was deservedly overlooked by the academy and trashed by critics– but it perfectly captures the intense and misguided desire by the film industry, particularly during the Bush years, to say something important without actually having anything to say; a $35,000,000 letter to the editor.

Additional Notes
Not even Meryl Streep can quote the famous Who lyric “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” without sounding like your washed-up ’70s activist aunt. Everyone please stop doing this.

Signs This Was Made in 2007

  • The end of the film has a mild but sudden preoccupation with celebrity gossip taking precedence over reports on the war– something that was definitely true in 2005 when the script was presumably written, but far less so in 2007.

  • Similarly, Todd makes a sudden avalanche of references to lawmakers-turned-convicted criminals Tom DeLay and Mark Foley– both out of office by the time of production.

  • Soldiers wear those stupid grey pixellated camo uniforms. These were introduced to the US Army under dubious and likely corrupt circumstances circa 2006 with no discernible purpose and became standard even as office wear before getting phased out in the mid-2010s.

How Did It Do?
Lions for Lambs just barely failed to recoup its marketing budget, earning $63.2 million against a $35 million budget. Hollywood in the 2000s was defined by the decline of star power, and with Lions for Lambs, Tom Cruise’s generous tenure as a box-office draw ended. Not that he went away or that his talents were wasted, but it’s notable that the next film in which he appeared, 2008’s terrific Tropic Thunder, omitted his (equally terrific) performance from the marketing campaign.

So too did it become clear that Robert Redford was no longer the storyteller that he’d once been. Although Lions for Lambs remains his most critically reviled effort (27% on RT), his two subsequent films failed to attract much attention at the box office or get more than middling reviews; and although he did not direct it, Redford’s long-championed adaptation of my beloved Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods turned out to be a barely-recognizable vanity project. It’s reached the point where my ex-girlfriend, who watched this with me, has since developed a strong aversion to his entire filmography.

Next Time: American Gangster