Honeydripper (2007)

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Honeydripper
Dir. John Sayles
Premiered at Toronto September 10, 2007

Honeydripper is most definitely a John Sayles movie.

The first major director to come out of the burgeoning indie movement in the early 1980s, Sayles is very much of a piece with his one-time contemporary Robert Altman; both having a knack for meandering, atmospheric ensemble pieces, almost always deadpan satire or historical drama, of which Honeydripper is the former. Critical and audience reaction to Sayles’ films are often unpredictable, but happily this one put a smile on my face.

The year is 1950, America is going back to war, and the misery of Jim Crow is as strong as ever Harmony, Alabama, an increasingly ironic name for a town where the joy of music is ever slipping away from Pine Top Purvis (Danny Glover). An old Jazz pianist who settled down after a youthful trauma, Pine Top now owns and manages the Honeydripper, a backroad blues club whose aging patrons can no longer keep the business afloat. Ever the gambler, Pine Top sees an opportunity to bring young people back by hiring the New Orleans sensation Guitar Sam to play on Saturday night.

In the meantime, Pine Top shoots the shit with his assistant (Charles S. Dutton), chafes against his religious wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and all the while a mysterious stranger named Sonny (Gary B. Clark) comes to town with a newfangled electric guitar, dotes on Pine Top’s stepdaughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), and gets pulled into the wrath of Harmony’s sadistic Sheriff (Stacy Keach).

At long last, Sayles combines his penchant for patient characterization with a broad assortment of terrific original music to create an ostentatious, even religious portrait of people dreaming of change, but failing to see it right in front of them. At TIFF 2007, it’s a breath of fresh air; as a rock & roll creation myth, it’s a long time coming.

How Did It Do?
After Sayles’ previous misfire Silver City, most critics were relieved to see him back on track and particularly enthused over Honeydripper’s musical compositions, earning the film a robust 68% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Unfortunately, the movie was released in just 26 US theaters in the freakishly stacked final weekend of 2007, and earned just $544,925 worldwide. Sayles has directed two films since, and we will be seeing him again.

Next Time: Reservation Road

 

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Dir. Shekhar Kapur
Premiered at Toronto September 9, 2007

Confession time: while no critic can appraise a film in a truly unbiased fashion, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is exceptionally difficult for me, not because of any disagreement with the film’s portrayal of history– though that’s also in there– but mainly because I’m just fucking tired of its subject.

Elizabeth I is probably the most frequently depicted English monarch in all of film and television, at least outside the UK. This obsession seems to have peaked between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, during which she was portrayed by Judi Dench, Imogen Slaughter, Tamara Hope, Margot Kidder, Lorna Lacey, Catherine McCormack, Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Mirren, Angela Pleasance, and of course Cate Blanchett, who became a household name on the strength of her performance in 1998’s Elizabeth, to which The Golden Age is a direct sequel.

Together, the two films effectively bookend this period of Elizabeth-mania, and while I didn’t absolutely despise Elizabeth, it was hard to watch for how little it varied from other media that came after. Every one of these films and shows wants to be the definitive portrait of the monarch, and accordingly they not only cover the same events, but do so with largely the same perspective: there’s always the vaguely feminist theme of a strong woman needing to prove herself in a man’s world, the boilerplate political intrigue, the starry-eyed romanticism of taking on Spain and dreaming of a future British Empire, and of course the evergreen speculation that the Virgin Queen was nothing of the sort.

On top of that, Elizabeth is a bad film anyway. There’s a good case to be made for taking liberties in service of a larger theme or purpose, but here the inaccuracies outnumber the facts, what few truths appear unadulterated butt in and are quickly whisked away like unwanted guests, and the lot of it is presented with the most sensationalistic of ‘90s cheese. Mind you, the direction and acting are fine if somewhat perfunctory, but there’s no escape from a bad script, and The Golden Age happily doubles down.

Released four years after the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Golden Age attempts to capture the same fantastical uplift as those films, but lacks the budget ($55 million), adequate runtime (114 minutes), or sense of direction to make it so. The majority of the film attempts to juggle Elizabeth’s potential interest in explorer/pirate Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and his subsequent betrayal with one of her handmaidens (Abbie Cornish) with a continuation of the foreign machinations depicted in the first: the Spanish crown sponsors an assassination attempt against Elizabeth (featuring Eddie Redmayne as the gunman), and Queenie’s trusted advisor Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) implicates the legandary Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) as a co-conspirator.

Call me unsentimental, but while I found neither plot to be compelling in the form presented, I must say that the latter had far more potential. Alas, the filmmakers went for maximum bodice-ripping while reducing the meatier cloak-and-dagger business to mere bullet points, despite it being the main driver of the film.

After Mary is executed, the Spanish Armada is sent to conquer England, and history goes completely out the window. The Spanish and English ships race through a storm– the real battle was under mostly clear skies. Elizabeth forgives Walter Raleigh so he can save the day at sea– the real leaders, Drake and Howard, are relegated to minor roles, as is Elizabeth’s court philosopher John Dee. The battle is a massive slaughter with the whole Spanish Armada sinking in flames– most of the ships ran aground in Belgium or had to go all the way around the British Isles to return to Spain.

If the governing philosophy behind Elizabeth: The Golden Age could be reduced to a single scene, it would be the prelude to battle in which Elizabeth herself rides out in full plate armor on a white horse, pledging to fight to the last as a common soldier should the time come. This climactic humiliation is mercifully elevated to so-bad-it’s-good status when the horse keeps walking in circles, forcing Cate Blanchett to constantly reorient herself in an losing battle to maintain her composure.

How Did It Do?
Elizabeth: The Golden Age grossed $74.2 million, too little to recoup its marketing budget and less than the original Elizabeth, even accounting for inflation. Although it managed an obligatory Oscar for Best Costume Design (and a nomination for Blanchett), critics were much harder on the picture than its predecessor, lambasting its soap operatics, loose history, and strangely vacillating characterization of the Queen herself (though that’s true of almost everyone portrayed).

If Elizabeth failed in all the same ways The Golden Age did, why is the former better remembered? Probably because the first came about in an era of greater tolerance for cheesy melodrama, and probably because it kicked off the Elizabeth craze, whereas The Golden Age heralded its merciful death.

Now it’s her father Henry VIII who’s getting run into the ground.

Next Time: Honeydripper

Across the Universe (2007)

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Across the Universe
Dir. Julie Taymor
Premiered at Toronto September 8, 2007

What, exactly, is the point?

I really didn’t want to do this one. I like the Beatles, and I’d like to be able to keep listening to their music without cringing from the memory of Across the Universe’s silly covers. And even if it wasn’t the Beatles, it’s still a jukebox musical, the pinnacle of Broadway’s evolution into generic, homogeneous, safe tourist fodder. And on top of that, it looked like yet another mindless baby-boomer greatest hits album with no real insight, in the vein of Forrest Gump. I approached my viewing like a condemned prisoner. But Minnie assured me it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) takes a job as a sailor in order to find his father, who sired him during the Second World War and now works as a janitor at Princeton University. Discovering his father wants nothing to do with him, Jude falls in with slacker student Max (Joe Anderson, putting out some serious Chris Evans vibes) and jumps ship. The two begin sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village with a ragtag bunch of outdated 1960s hagiographic stereotypes, as well as Max’s younger sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who falls in love with Jude after losing her high school sweetheart to the Vietnam War.

From that point, the entirety of the 1960s happens. Max gets drafted, things get sad, bad things happen to black people, and weirdos do a fuckton of drugs. Lucy gets into the anti-war movement hard, alienating Jude, who becomes an artist while she is radicalized into the violent New Left. All to the music of the Beatles.

On the one hand, the film actually tries to tell its own story rather than slavishly building one around the Beatles’ lyrics; I can respect that. On the other hand, the film then struggles to justify the inclusion of said songs, which are used in place of whatever emotion, chemistry, or character development is supposed to take place. Consequently, the actors have little to work with. There’s not much to say about the music. It’s the Beatles, it’s hard to fuck up, and at least these cover versions sound better than, say, Glee. But it’s pretty clear the this was only made because said music was well-known and there’d be a built in audience.

I can’t talk about Across the Universe without talking about the environment in which it was made, because it never commits to its period setting. The real-world revival of 1960s fashion and aesthetics was still a few years away, and you can tell, as people’s hair and clothes are slightly off, and the cinematography and lighting immediately marks it out as a 2007 film.

Most of all, though, it’s the attitude that kills the mood. When Across the Universe came to theaters, Mad Men was in the middle of its first season, and while that season was unnecessarily heavyhanded in its borderline-alien depiction of a bygone era, it still succeeded in showcasing a time period that valued ambition and optimism, the hard-won hope born of decades of untold pain and tragedy. The characters in Across the Universe, by contrast, talk and act with a directionless, winking cynicism that screams “I am not old enough to remember the Cold War.” In Mad Men’s Sally Draper, I can genuinely see the girl who grew up to be my mother, but these characters feel more akin to a bunch of theatre kids who just watched Slacker.

So I ask again: what, exactly, is the point?

Additional Notes

  • We don’t see much of Jude’s Liverpool origins, but Julie Taymor definitely tries to show how humble they are. Having actually been to Liverpool, Taymor’s idea of postwar British poverty is laughably naïve. I think Americans still have this unreasonably lofty image of Britain, even today, as being an empire of sorts– at least they did before last week. It’s understandable for the most part, but here it comes off as kind of insulting.

  • Speaking of cultural imperialism, I also find it uncomfortable that Taymor decided to use the music of the ever-so-British Beatles to capture the milieu of 1960s America.

  • This movie also appears to exist in a world in which The Beatles don’t exist. My head hurts.

How Did It Do?
Despite its unfortunate longevity as a topic of praise among deluded musical theater majors and a promising performance in its opening weekend, Across the Universe was an outright flop, grossing $29.4 million against a $70.8 million budget and a divisive 53% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Among its boosters were Roger Ebert, who counted it as the 7th-best film of the year, and Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who ranked it 1st.

Director Julie Taymor followed the film up with a new rendition of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest starring Helen Mirren. When that film was panned by critics and bombed spectacularly at the box office, Taymor returned to Broadway, where she and U2 frontman Bono (who cameos in this film) conceived Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the greatest bomb in Broadway history.

Across the Universe nevertheless earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, but that’s hardly an endorsement considering that one of its fellow nominees was…

Next Time: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Eastern Promises (2007)

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Eastern Promises
Dir. David Cronenberg
Premiered at Toronto September 8, 2007

Throughout the 1990s, David Cronenberg took a sharp turn. Formerly the grandmaster of gross-out gore like Scanners and The Fly, he began to take on more serious fare, gaining critical praise and awards buzz from 2005’s A History of Violence and its follow-up, Eastern Promises.

Make no mistake, though; Cronenberg still has an unsurpassable flair for body horror, a fact that occurred to me while watching this film. An immigrant gangster story seemed tailor-made for New York, I thought; why set this story in London? And then I realized how much disturbing it is to watch people kill each other with knives, hand-to-hand, than with guns.

On Christmas Day, a teenage girl dies in childbirth in a London hospital, leaving behind a diary entirely in Russian. Her midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) initially takes the diary to her uncle to translate it, but after finding the card of a local Russian restaurant, she takes it to the restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

What Anna doesn’t realize is that Semyon is the kingpin of a ruthless mafia family– trafficking in heroin, sex slaves, and unadulterated terror. What’s more, the girl’s diary implicates Semyon and his manchild son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in a litany of international crimes. Meanwhile, the Family runs afoul of some upstart Chechens, and bring aboard the cold, tranquil fix-it man Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who possesses secrets of his own.

Eastern Promises is visceral and horrific in a way that few gangster films are, partly due to the choice to make the gangsters Russian. 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. This entire sensation pivots around Viggo Mortensen, who does an outstanding job as Nikolai, a man you can never quite read or predict until the final act.

Altogether, Eastern Promises is one of the best gangster films, if not the best, of the 2000s, and while I would not count it among the best of the best films of the year overall, it’s well worth a look from those who can steel themselves against the brutality that unfolds.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The City of London Skyline consists of the Gherkin and a bunch of cranes. The Family’s heroin supply is constantly being cut off due to the American war in Afghanistan.

How Did It Do?
Although Eastern Promises grossed just $56.1 million against a $50 million budget, its status among cinephiles and especially gangster movie afficionados is legendary. Earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, many critics praised the film’s uncompromising brutality, most notably in one of the most extraordinary fight scenes ever put to film, and which Cronenberg requested no critic spoil. Several critics listed it among the ten best of 2007, with Mark Doyle of Metacritic placing it at #1. Viggo Mortensen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and, despite the initial financial disappointment, plans began for a sequel before being quashed by Focus Features in 2013.

Next Time: Across the Universe

The Visitor (2007)

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The Visitor
Dir. Tom McCarthy
Premiered at Toronto September 7, 2007

The Visitor is a kind movie that’s extremely hard to pull off. So far, 2007 has presented us with a slew of message movies, but in its structure, The Visitor most closely resembles one of the earliest: Reign Over Me, a film which I initially spoke well of, but which nonetheless uses one character’s intense trauma and suffering as an implied means to the self-actualization of its everyman protagonist. This speaks at once to the oft-repeated but little-understood screenwriting proverb to “write what you know.” You need an everyman.

Put that in a story about immigration from the third world, as The Visitor is, and give it a white Anglo protagonist, as The Visitor does, and we should expect cries of “white savior narrative” from every thinkpiece factory, alternative weekly, and film theory class in the western world. And yet The Visitor didn’t. It works, because unlike other message movies, it’s genuinely about people.

Stuck in a deep depression after the death of his wife, economics professor Walter (Richard Jenkins) is sent to a conference at NYU. Luckily, Walter and his wife kept their old apartment in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Walter hasn’t visited in two years, and is shocked to discover two strangers (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) living there. Why they were allowed to do so is never explained– something to do with a stranger named Ivan– but Walter’s loneliness and pity for the young couple leads him to let them keep living in his second bedroom.

Warming to the company of his new flatmates, even taking drum lessons from street musician Tarek (Sleiman), Walter’s new living situation is complicated by the discovery that the two are illegal immigrants– Tarek is from Syria, Zeinab (Gurira) from Senegal– leading Tarek to be arrested under dubious circumstances and held in a private ICE prison in Queens. Although he’s only known Tarek for a short time, Walter forgoes his mostly imaginary duties at the university to do whatever he can to help his new friend.

Note the word “friend,” because if you want to do this kind of story right, this is how. Walter isn’t motivated by righteous indignation, or general principle. He doesn’t need the couple’s situation to be explained to him, or witness inhumane treatment, or even be able to help– crucially, Walter begins to realize that, native-born white English-speaker he may be, he’s not as powerful as he might think. Instead, his genuine friendship, brought vividly to life by oft-thankless character actor Richard Jenkins, is all the explanation we need. Strange that a small movie, entirely a fiction, about one man’s relationships with others, is able to accomplish what so many epic fables can’t.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Walter drives under an improvised highway sign that says “support our troops and bring them home.” Walter takes Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.

How Did It Do?
The Visitor was overwhelmingly favored by critics, earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Although it went wide in April 2008, long before awards season, and grossed only $18.1 million, it tellingly still earned Jenkins an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Lead Role.

Next Time: Eastern Promises

Rendition (2007)

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Rendition
Dir. Gavin Hood
Premiered at Toronto September 7, 2007

Rendition is a better Oscar Bait film than In the Valley of Elah. It’s better-written, better-directed, and has way more star power. Unlike Elah, it has a much better grasp of its subject matter, and takes a definitive stance beyond “something is wrong.” Consequently, it feels much more in touch.

Most importantly, and in stark contrast to most other “political” films of 2007, Rendition realizes that if a movie is going to shape hearts and minds, it must be watchable. Somehow, it succeeds at both, yet it does so in such a way that they cancel each other out.

Upon arriving at Washington Dulles Airport from a business conference in South Africa, Egyptian-American chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is kidnapped by CIA operatives, erased from the passenger manifest, and flown to Tunisia to be interrogated. His chief interrogator, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), was the intended target of a suicide bombing the previous day. The bomb used was much more chemically complex than in previous attacks, and prime suspect, one Khalid El-Emin (Moa Khouas) was discovered to have made several phone calls to a man named Anwar El-Ibrahimi.

Anwar maintains his innocence, even as he is subjected to imprisonment, waterboarding, and electrocution, which drives Fawal’s American handler, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose predecessor was killed in the same bombing, to question his role in the practice of Extraordinary Rendition, a real US government policy by which suspected terrorists were abducted and taken to prisons outside American jurisdiction for maximum plausible deniability. Neither Freeman nor his supervisor (J.K. Simmons) are sure that Anwar is their man, but their indefatigable boss (Meryl Streep) is certain beyond any shadow of a doubt, and will stop at nothing to make sure she isn’t questioned

Although Anwar’s name no longer appears on the flight manifest, his credit card bill confirms that he was on the plane. Upon this discovery, his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), heavily pregnant with their second child, travels to Washington and attempts to call in a favor with an old friend (Peter Sarsgaard) and the Senator he serves (Alan Arkin).

In a tangentially related plot, Fawal’s daughter Fatima (the head-explodingly gorgeous Zineb Oukach) is hiding from her conservative father, shacking up with a secret boyfriend who is becoming radicalized.

On the one hand, the inclusion of this last plot is good for the film as a viewing experience. It’s nice to look at, and gives the film a good rhythm and much-needed breathing space from the main conflict. While Witherspoon and Arkin give pained monologues for their Oscar Reels, Streep glowers like a cartoon villain, and Gyllenhaal’s dialogue occasionally devolves into flowery pontification (such as quoting Shakespeare in a fireside chat with his Tunisian counterpart), the Fatima plot is far more naturalistic without clashing with everything else.

On the other hand, while the outcome of the Fatima plot is set up, there’s no reason for it to be set up the way it is except (a) that interconnecting narratives were trendy among prestige films in the mid-late 2000s, and (b) to throw in a twist. Suffice it to say that, while the bulk of the  film suggests a rigid, 24-like adherence to chronological immediacy at the expense of all else, the two plot lines are not necessarily happening at the same time.

It isn’t hard to see why Rendition ended up flying under the radar: it’s the kind of movie you happily sit through, but which leaves you scratching your head a few hours later. Faced with the choice between being a Very Important Movie and a Good Movie, Rendition somehow managed to be both and neither.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Flip phones galore. Khalid wears a keffiyeh scarf, is not Palestinian. The US government officially does not consider Enhanced Interrogation Techniques to be torture.

Additional Notes

  • The film is not explicitly set in Tunisia, though some of the documents read by Freeman say “Tunis.” I suspect the filmmakers ultimately decided to avoid pissing off a friendly nation and go with an unnamed North African setting. Unfortunately, the film was shot in Morocco, home to a distinct culture far predating the presence of Islam or the Arabic language, and specifically Marrakech, which there’s no confusing for anywhere else.
  • Bizarrely, two scenes set in a congressional office in Washington, DC use a backdrop of Downtown Los Angeles. Shooting on a Hollywood soundstage is one thing, but it’s not as if DC backdrops are hard to find.

How Did It Do?
Rendition grossed just $27.5 million against a $27 million budget, received a tepid 47% rating on RottenTomatoes, and received no notable accolades whatsoever, not even for Academy goddess Meryl Streep (she would fare no better with the forthcoming Lions for Lambs– nor would anyone else). Roger Ebert was uncommonly glowing in his praise; Peter Travers meanwhile proclaimed it the worst anti-war movie of 2007, though I don’t think it holds a candle to such turds as Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, or Lions for Lambs.

Next Time: The Visitor

My Winnipeg (2007)

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My Winnipeg
Dir. Guy Maddin
Premiered at Toronto September 7, 2007

In 1978, the producers of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter came up with a radical solution to the problem of how to sell a great movie to an audience that wasn’t ready for it: by fulfilling the minimum requirements to be considered for an Academy Award, and then lobbying the voters who decide said award, they could get people into theaters off the hype.

Two years earlier, the City of Toronto, in an attempt to shore up its cultural relevance, came up with a strange idea: to hold a film festival of movies that had been popular at other film festivals. It was not an immediate success, but as it took place in late summer, making the last major festival of the year, it became a useful benchmark for when to begin releasing films with the intention of attracting awards consideration, which eventually evolved into using the festival as a platform to say “this is an awards movie.” Welcome to TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival.

At Cannes, prestige is cultivated. At TIFF, it’s mass-produced, injected into movies so they can win Oscars the same way steroids were injected into Barry Bonds to win baseball games. In the 21st century, Venice and Telluride have successfully followed in TIFF’s footsteps, and a few others have tried and failed, but whichever festivals these movies premiere at, if they’re serious about getting the gold, they all end up in Toronto.

Such a film is unlikely to ever come from Guy Maddin. One of the few great Canadian filmmakers to remain in his native country, Maddin’s fixations with memory, decay, and the Silent Era have a tendency to alienate even the most devoted cineastes. But if there was ever a year to make an exception, to reach the heart the casual viewer without sacrificing his signature style, it was 2007, with My Winnipeg.

My Winnipeg will be well understood by anyone who shares an auspicious love for the place they came from. Maddin imagines himself on a train that he hopes will take him out of his native city, the unloved stepchild among Canadian metropolises. Along the way, he narrates reminiscences about his hometown and upbringing.

Whether he’s revisiting his own past Annie Hall-style, exploring Winnipeg’s bizarre history, or bemoaning its schizophrenic approach to architectural preservation, every digression is an appropriately expressionistic blend of comedy and the macabre, comporting with the ghostly affect of his beloved silents: a short-lived gallery of frozen horse heads on the Red River, an act of performance art by which a fake Nazi invasion is staged to sell war bonds, an extended rant on the state of hockey. Maddin cannot leave Winnipeg, because however much it manages to disappoint him, at least he is able to keep recognizing it as his. In an age when loving one’s hometown and what it represents is so often held up as a symbol of ignorance in artistic circles, Maddin’s love is unconditional and unapologetic.

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.

How Did It Do?
My Winnipeg won Best Canadian Film at TIFF. After nearly a year, it was finally released to theaters in August 2008, wherein it grossed just $285,469, but that doesn’t matter; it was nominated for no major awards, but that doesn’t matter: the film was heralded by critics such as Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the tenth best film of the entire 2000s. In 2015, TIFF returned to My Winnipeg to proclaim it the ninth-best Canadian film of all time. And if not for the praise of online user Douay-Rheims Challoner, formerly of the AVClub, without whom I would never have known to see it.

Next Time: Rendition

Man From Plains (2007)

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Man from Plains
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Premiered at Venice September 7, 2007

Once upon a time, someone who had never been to the United States asked me to explain a joke she’d seen on The Simpsons, in which Jimmy Carter was sarcastically labeled “history’s greatest monster.” She didn’t get it. “Was Jimmy Carter really that horrible?” she asked, “or is the joke that he was really great?”

I understand her confusion; the Carter presidency is an aberration with few historical parallels. Much as people in right-wing media might wishfully characterize America’s 39th President as a monstrous lunatic, nobody can say it with conviction: the problem with Carter is that he was genuinely too good to be President, an unbending moralist unwilling to perform the sins required of effective leaders. As a President, he was a naïve fool and rightfully disliked for it; but as an ordinary man, he’s beloved, a living facet of America’s proud political heritage.

Most of the time.

In Jonathan Demme’s Man from Plains, Carter’s good intentions clash once more with the practicalities of leadership as he promotes his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, the subject of immediate controversy by its very title. After joining the former Commander-in-Chief at an endearing Thanksgiving potlock in Plains, Georgia, Demme follows him on a grueling press tour all around the US to be interviewed by just about everyone who’d have him, including both Al-Jazeera and the Israeli Broadcast Authority.

Carter makes no secret of having chosen the book’s title as a deliberate provocation– in fact, he never shuts up about it– but when he’s accused of misrepresenting events he writes about, or plagiarizing maps from a book by former diplomat Dennis Ross, he avoids the issue. To be sure, not all of this is under Carter’s control; his debate with a group of Arizona rabbis was unable to be filmed for example. Yet Carter creates his own problems when, for example, he refuses to debate Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz over the content of the book. This last instance is perhaps the most bizarre, flying in the face of Carter’s own stated intentions to start a debate.

Knowing that Jimmy Carter is a genuinely good person who has built a lot of goodwill– at one point detouring to New Orleans so he can help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina– I cannot hate the man. And I don’t believe he is an enemy of Israel or of peace, however offensively or overoptimistically he may frame the terms. But watching him self-victimize whenever he’s confronted is unsettling to say the least, and may provide an unintended insight into the failings of his presidency.

I worked hard not to judge this movie (or any movie) by its politics, or whatever I infer its politics may be. But the film as presented left me scratching my head. Jonathan Demme, a great documentarian, surely chose to make this film in an attempt to cash in on the controversy at its center, yet Man From Plains never really goes there. Like Carter, Demme evades, electing only to show critics in either the worst possible light to unmask them as secret admirers of the former President. He treats politics like he does the performers in his concert movies, and in so doing deprives the film in question of any reason to exist.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carter appears on The Tonight Show the same night as Panic! At the Disco.

Among Carter’s many, many interviewers are three men who have since withdrawn from public life due to sexual harassment allegations within the last four months: Charlie Rose, Al Franken, and Tavis Smiley. What’s more, Smiley glowingly compares Carter to Bill Cosby as a man trying to make a difference in old age.

How Did It Do?
Man from Plains was gleefully received by critics, earning a 79% rating on RottenTomatoes. Said critics may also have been the only people to see it in theaters, as it grossed a miniscule $119,263.

Next Time: My Winnipeg

The Brothers Solomon (2007)

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The Brothers Solomon
Dir. Bob Odenkirk
Premiered September 7, 2007

Despite his recent fame for playing Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul,  Bob Odenkirk has been a comedic stalwart, writing for Saturday Night Live in his 20s, making his onscreen debut on the frustratingly overlooked The Ben Stiller Show, and costarring with David Cross on the underground-conquering Mr. Show.

Strangely, Odenkirk’s talents have not extended to the director’s seat. Beginning with the slight but enjoyable indie theater adaptation Melvin Goes to Dinner, his directorial efforts have been strictly limited to poorly thought-out comedies such as today’s entry in the canon of the great year 2007, The Brothers Solomon.

Although it has its defenders, The Brothers Solomon was overwhelmingly rejected by critics, earning a 15% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes (for comparison, Georgia Rule got 17%). In what he described as a first, critic Richard Roeper found the film so awful as to walk out of the theater. I don’t know what movie he watched, because this is far from the worst film I’ve reviewed for this project.

Which isn’t to say it’s good

Raised alone in the Arctic by an overindulgent single father of seemingly infinite wealth, brothers John and Dean Solomon (Will Arnett and Will Forte, respectively) are relentlessly positive, socially inept, and perennially oblivious. When their beloved father (Lee Majors) goes into a coma, the two strangely decide that having a grandson will bring him back to consciousness. To that end, they acquire the services of a surrogate (Kristen Wiig) over the objections of her high-strung but well-meaning boyfriend (Chi McBride).

The first fifteen minutes of the film are genuinely great; John and Dean constantly egging each other on with their weird, hyper-innocent thought process. It reminded me a lot of Dumb and Dumber, though it must be said that Forte was much more likable than the relentlessly sleazy Arnett– who spends most of the movie creeping on their neighbor (Malin Åkerman). I realize that’s a deliberate character choice, but it doesn’t complement the film’s style of humor, which runs thin very quickly.

After the first act, the plot moves along of its own volition, with the jokes falling completely flat in such a way as to suggest Screenwriter Will Forte is trying to capture the magic of his own first few pages. The Brothers Solomon isn’t remotely as bad as they’d have you believe, but there’s still no reason to seek it out.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
During the last funny gag in the movie, Dean explains what Craigslist is.

Additional Notes

  • What does The Brothers Solomon have in common with Bratz? Both feature opening credits in Comic Sans. Here, however, it’s a deliberately stupid choice, rather than the act of editors pandering to a kiddie film they wrongly but understandably assume will never see the light of day.

  • The Solomons’ home at the North Pole is depicted as being on land (wrong) at 0º latitude by 0º longitude (double wrong).

  • Chi McBride’s character initially accuses the Solomons of being racist for assuming he’s a janitor (which he is) because of his uniform, and being surprised at the niceness of his neighborhood (because he’s a janitor). If the film had kept going with this gag, it’d work, but as it stands, it’s taken too far to be funny on its own, but not taken far enough to be entertainingly absurd.

  • Minnie on this film: “That was a movie.”

How Did It Do?
The Brothers Solomon went into wide release the same weekend as 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and was crushed, ultimately earning just $1 million against a $10 million budget. Despite this, and the aforementioned critical drubbing, it has developed something of a cult…at least among people who read Nathan Rabin.

Next Time: Man from Plains

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered at Deauville September 7, 2007

In the 2000s, a typical year in the US would see around 150 theatrical releases in a year, with rarely more than five films debuting in a busy weekend. For some reason, 2007 was different; well over 200 films got American releases, wide or limited, with some weekends seeing as many as seven, eight, or nine new films. So part of the reason 2007 produced so many good movies is that it produced so many more movies, period. This is also why this explosion of creative energy made little impact on box office records– the lesser-known original films were crowding each other out. And it may also explain why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a heavily advertised, critically-acclaimed A-list film from a name director, has managed to become obscure. It doesn’t deserve that fate.

One sunny morning, the proprietress of a suburban jewelry store (Rosemary Harris) is confronted by an armed, masked robber, shooting him dead, but not before getting shot herself. The erstwhile getaway driver speeds off in shock.

Three days earlier, deadbeat divorcee Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke), behind on his child support payments, desperately asks his successful realtor brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to help him out. Andy, who claims to need money himself despite appearances, has a better idea: to rob their parents, who own a jewelry store in the suburbs. Afraid to confront them himself, Hank acquires the services of lowlife thief Bobby (Bryan F. O’Byrne), who comes armed. The robbery is botched when mother Nannette turns out to be minding the store instead of father Charles (Albert Finney). By the end of the day, one person is dead and another is dying.

Desperate for help, Hank calls Andy in his office. Here, the story rewinds once more, and this movie becomes amazing, as we discover why Andy needs the money: he’s been embezzling funds from his business in order to support his heroin habit, and is keen to escape the country before the feds come after him. Also, his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) is having an affair– with Hank.

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. Characters and situations pile up like car wrecks on a foggy road, a sense amplified by the film’s unusual white filter, washing the film out like an interrogation room, a drug trip, the reflection off a diamond, or the light one allegedly sees at death. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of the best films of 2007, and it deserves to be remembered as such. At the very least, it puts the familial dysfunction of Dan in Real Life to shame.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Among the many character actors who make appearances is Blaine Horton, whose sole other credit as an actor is as Sacha, the fey redhead in Jenna Maroney’s entourage on an episode of 30 Rock which aired just a few weeks after Devil’s premiere.

Additional Notes

  • Gina points out that there’s no extradition treaty between Brazil and the United States. She’s right, but she says she heard it in a movie once, and in the film she’s likely thinking of, David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, the country in question is Venezuela.

  • Marisa Tomei is also naked in quite a lot of this movie, which is nice. Costanzas take note.

  • However, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an intractable junkie makes this film a bit harsher in hindsight.

How Did It Do?
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead undersold in the US. Though relatively successful in Western Europe (especially Italy), its $25 million gross couldn’t recover the marketing costs against its $18 million budget.

However, it was a critical smash, earning an 88% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. NPR’s David Edelstein predicted Oscar Glory for the film, but it received nothing so much as a nomination. Ten years on, the film is shamefully absent from streaming services or even iTunes or Netflix DVD, and it took a full week to hunt down at the Los Angeles Public Library. This is not okay.

Critics proclaimed the film a return to form for Sidney Lumet. Unfortunately, it would be his last; he passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.

Next Time: The Brothers Solomon