Charlie Bartlett (2007)

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Charlie Bartlett
Dir. Jon Poll
Premiered at Tribeca May 1, 2007

For a friend of a friend, 1989-2016

I can confidently say that no film from 2007 will perplex me like Charlie Bartlett does. It unsuccessfully tries to capture the magic of a dozen other films, yet succeeds wildly at being something new. The story is pure teenage power fantasy, yet the dialogue is unequivocally grown-up. It’s charming, but not funny. It’s truthful, but unrealistic. The cast has outstanding chemistry, but the movie prominently features a Cat Stevens cover, which is just unacceptable.

Charlie Bartlett was yet another film compared unfavorably to Rushmore, and it’s at least more deserving of that criticism than Rocket Science was. Like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, the titular Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a precocious troublemaker who entertains fantasies of his own popularity, takes a recurring interest in theatre, and makes a powerful adult enemy.

Otherwise, though, Charlie is the opposite of Max: he’s rich, doted on by his mother (Hope Davis), a good student, a juvenile delinquent from the start, and frankly way nicer and funnier. In many ways, Charlie feels more like Ferris Bueller, and just as Bueller needed Matthew Broderick to make him likable, Charlie Bartlett without Yelchin would probably have drawn more comparisons to Ryan Philippe in Cruel Intentions.

After being expelled from seemingly every prep school in his state, Charlie tries his hand at public school. Following a wobbly transition, Charlie charms the pants off Susan (Kat Dennings), the daughter of the school’s depressed alcoholic Principal (Robert Downey Jr.). Charlie also starts giving ad-hoc therapy sessions in the boys’ bathroom, where his open heart wins new friends while his easy access to psychiatric medications, aided by his family doctor  (Stephen Young) and erstwhile bully (Tyler Hilton), makes him indispensable.

Just a reminder that if not for Yelchin, this movie would have been an insufferable masturbatory fantasy.

Charlie Bartlett’s relationship with reality is flexible in a way that probably would have worked better in a more explicitly comedic movie. At the same time, it’s unexpectedly emotionally honest, to the point that I began to wonder if screenwriter Gustin Nash hadn’t written the first draft during his own high school years– aside from a few superficialities, there’s no reason that this story couldn’t have been set during the ‘80s or ‘90s. To paraphrase an old description of Romeo and Juliet, Charlie Bartlett tries to be a comedy of youth as youth sees it, and succeeds just enough for me to like it. But in 2007, another movie tried to the same thing, and blew this movie right out of the fucking water.

Additional Notes
This movie features an out-of-nowhere sex scene. Not out-of-nowhere because it’s a sex scene, but because it’s atrociously edited in a manner appearing nowhere else in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Aside from Taxi to the Dark Side, Charlie Bartlett was the most notable film to come out of Tribeca that year, but only in retrospect: it won no festival awards, had its wide release postponed by six months, and was a pitiful flop, earning just $5.2 million against a $12 million budget. Critics were stubbornly on the fence, making frequent comparisons to the aforementioned Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as Pump Up the Volume and Election, earning it a 56% rating on RottenTomatoes. Jon Poll, an editor by trade, had never directed before and never would again.

However, a month before its home video release, a little movie came out called Iron Man, elevating the star of Robert Downey, Jr. to the point that just having his name and face on a poster could turn Charlie Bartlett from a critical and commercial embarrassment to the teen cult movie of 2008, one of the most popular rentals of that year; a film that has somehow found its way onto the shelves of almost every house and apartment I’ve ever lived in; and a retroactive star vehicle for Yelchin, who went on to play Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies before his tragically premature death in a freak accident last year.

Next Time: Shrek the Third

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Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

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Taxi to the Dark Side
Dir. Alex Gibney
Premiered at Tribeca April 28, 2007

“…People have just decided… ‘it’s different now, after 9/11, we can’t be good anymore. We have to get tough.’ And so we’ll have to see what that does to us. I think that’s bullshit…”

In December 2002, an Afghani cab driver named Dilawar was captured by Afghani forces as a member of Al Qaeda. He was stated to have been suspected of responsibility for a rocket attack on their base, though later evidence suggested that this was not true. Imprisoned at Bagram Air Base, Dilawar was eventually discovered dead, chained to the ceiling in solitary confinement, his legs pulverized. His death was officially ruled as a homicide. But Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t really about him.

Bagram was the zero for Enhanced Interrogation, a policy of torture instigated under the administration of US President George W. Bush in response to the September 11 Attacks. Everyone agreed that the attacks were an act of war, but terrorism was historically treated as a criminal justice issue, and Al Qaeda didn’t exactly wear a uniform, raising the dilemma of whether to treat suspected combatants should be treated as prisoners of war or criminal suspects. The answer the Administration came to was that they were both, and neither. This is the heart of the torture issue during the War on Terror, and is rarely addressed in media about it. But Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t really about that.

Using a patchwork of interrogation programs sanctioned both implicitly and explicitly by the White House legal team, prisoners at Bagram, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and secret prisons operated by the CIA and US allies were subjected tortures both old and new, most notably waterboarding, but the list of novel indignities and savageries could go on longer than this review, and often occurred one after the other. The official position was that this was not torture because torture cannot be defined. But it isn’t really about that.

While defending torture in public, forcefully, unapologetically, often by citing the fictional television series 24 and its infamous and unreal “ticking time bomb” scenario to justify it, the administration military brass took legal precaution to insulate themselves, leaving the enlisted men and women who did the dirty work to take the fall when it inevitably came. But this isn’t about them.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney was the son of a Navy Interrogator in the Second World War; and the revelation that their country was engaging in torture horrified both men. Torture is illegal, inflames enemy sentiment, incentivizes the prisoner to lie, and is used primarily to elicit false confessions. So Gibney tried getting to the bottom of it. But even his own movie isn’t about him.

The vast majority of people imprisoned were probably not enemy combatants, but random people framed by local US allies in exchange for large bounties. The military did not question whether anyone was innocent, merely collecting bodies to compensate for the embarrassment that, even after years of fighting, neither Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden nor Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been captured. But this is not about that.

Even if detainees were guilty, their indefinite detention without charge or the right to an attorney violated of both the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then-Navy counsel Alberto Mora declared that when the US fights, it fights not only for American lives but for American principles, and that the latter could not afford to be sacrificed in exchange for the other.

That is what Taxi to the Dark Side is about: who do we want to be? To defeat an enemy that can never win yet can defeat us, and is willing to die to do so, is the American soul an acceptable price? Appropriate then that 24, whose protagonist is defined by self-destruction for country, was upheld as the ideal hero and cultural standard-brearer for torture. 9/11 is as distant from us as it is from Andropov. Torture has come and gone. Even President Trump, in his simpering fear of men who lack his own shattering insecurities, has accepted the military’s request not to resume the practice. But this question, in all its many forms, remains, and in Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney does the best damn job of asking it I’ve ever seen.

How Did It Do?
Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary at Tribeca. Released to general audiences in early 2008, it never played in more than twenty theaters, and grossed just $294,309, less than one tenth the receipts of Gibney’s debut feature Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

But it did not go unnoticed, as the film earned a rare 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Refusing to be pigeonholed in the vein of other documentarians of his generation, Gibney’s subsequent work as been as varied as it has been uncompromising, investigating everything from steroids to Scientology. He’s not quite as famous as his less camera-shy peers, but he’s a brand name for doc fans, and deservedly so.

Next Time: Charlie Bartlett

Next (2007)

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Next
Dir. Lee Tamahori
Premiered April 25, 2007

When I first heard about Next, it was on a review show on PBS the weekend it premiered. Based on the premise, I was intrigued, but equally disappointed by the cold reception. I mean, it starred Nicolas Cage after all, and had the same director as Die Another Day, so it wasn’t a surprise. But when it came to doing this series, I wanted to check it out nonetheless.

Nicolas Cage plays Chris Johnson, a.k.a. Frank Cadillac, a Vegas magician who has the power to see his immediate future. Mainly, he uses this to cheat at casinos and evade the law. The FBI finally catches up to him, though, when agents led by Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) try to recruit him to find a missing nuclear warhead.

Chris gets away, but not before meeting the literal woman of his dreams at a diner. She’s played by Jessica Biel and, as it turns out, isn’t completely turned off by the jowly, wild-haired stranger staring at her like she’s made out of chocolate cake and is also about to explode.

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Of all the films I’ve covered so far, this is the laziest (bar Uwe Boll). The script is full of awkward exposition and insistent terminology that makes me think the filmmakers didn’t know English. FBI head Jim Beaver refers to Russia as the “Russian Federation.” It’s not wrong, but it’s pretty obvious that this script was written a long time ago and they just did a find-and-replace of “Soviet Union.” Ferris claims that if Chris doesn’t help the feds, he’ll be sent to Folsom State Prison, emphasis on state, and a different state at that. The acting is less than phoned in; everyone rushes through their lines with little thought or emotion, as if they have only minutes to finish shooting (only Jessica Biel seems to give a shit, and comes off looking the best despite some unflattering choices by the film’s hairstylist). In one scene, Cadillac hides from a security guard by crouching; not under or behind anything, just crouching. And considering the relative groundedness of the premise, the movie is packed with unnecessary CGI that looks like it was rendered on a PS2.

At the same time, it’s not entertainingly bad. It’s kind of fun to point out everything that’s wrong in the first act, but after that it cools down considerably. The premise and plot aren’t bad at all; it is based on a Philip K. Dick story after all (very loosely, as always), and the ending reminded me a bit of Memento, but Next is a perfect storm of poor execution.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
The movie opens with a montage of the Vegas strip set to Junkie XL’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” To be fair, it had only been six years since the remix first appeared in the Vegas strip montage in Ocean’s Eleven. On the other hand, it had only been six years since the remix first appeared in the Vegas strip montage in Ocean’s Eleven, and in the meantime had been done to death in the advertising campaign for the 2002 World Cup and as the opening theme for the NBC show Las Vegas. So using it here at this point is an achievement in hackery.

Additional Notes
At one point the FBI uses an “enhance” button to find Chris.

How Did It Do?
I didn’t expect Next to have had a big budget, especially after watching it, but since Lee Tamahori had previously directed the awful but profitable Bond movie Die Another Day, I guess Revolution Studios was willing to give him the benefit of doubt, because Mother of God, this had a $78.1 million budget. Even if critics hadn’t savaged it with a 28% RT rating, there’s no way it could’ve made that money back, let alone the unlisted marketing costs. Of course, it grossed $77.6 million, mostly from overseas, including yet another disproportionate contribution from the Kingdom of Spain.

Tamahori never directed a profitable picture after Die Another Day in 2002. Eventually he went back to his native New Zealand and actually made something that critics liked, but did nothing in terms of business.

Cage gonna Cage.

Next Time: Taxi to the Dark Side

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

SPIDER-MAN 3

Spider-Man 3
Dir. Sam Raimi
Premiered April 16, 2007

For a long time, there was something about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films that rubbed me the wrong way. When Iron Man came out in 2008, I found myself wondering why Spider-Man couldn’t have been more like it. In my memory, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a whiny dweeb who took himself so seriously that it made you wonder if the “great power” uncle Ben talked about really meant spider-powers. His obsessive attempts at secrecy only endangered the people he meant to keep safe. Spider-Man 2’s tie-in song was by Dashboard Confessional, for God’s sake! Where was the wit and lightness of the comics?

But then I watched Chris Stuckmann’s review of the first film, and it made me wonder if I had been wrong, so to prepare for this review, I revisited the entire trilogy.

I mostly agree with Chris. It’s cheesy at times, but it’s Sam Raimi, and he knows how to deploy cheese. It also deals with a lot of adult themes that I didn’t really understand back in 2002. As a film, it’s well-shot, the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is done mostly right, and hey, he’s actually funny! Overall, it’s a decent thrill ride that strikes the balance between fun and business.

Spider-Man 2 is goes way beyond decent; not only is it less dated and gimmicky, better-written (much of the film’s best moments can be credited to an early draft by Michael Chabon), and more interesting to look at, it also explores many of the issues with the character of Spider-Man that the first movie had raised but never addressed: the difficulty of balancing Peter’s moral responsibility with his own well-being and loved ones, and whether he can or indeed should have a normal life.

At this point, I realized what had soured me on the franchise as a whole: Spider-Man 3 is a mess, and discussing the plot of this film in a linear fashion is near-impossible, so let’s go point-by-point.

The Symbiote/Venom
Spider-Man 2 ends with Peter (Tobey Maguire) revealing his secret life to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who accepts the risk of getting close to a man with many enemies and embraces him as the love of her life. In Spider-Man 3, Peter is on his way to propose to Mary Jane when a symbiotic organism falls from space, attaches to him, turns the Spider-Man suit black (as well as Peter’s hair, depending on what take they used), and making him cruel, vengeful, selfish, and vain.

This results in a borderline-Saturday Night Fever parody that has no relevance to the story, and is widely regarded as the stupidest thing in the movie, though there are plenty of others to compete with it. After driving away the people he loves with his new behavior, Peter breaks free of the symbiote, but it finds a new host in Peter’s unscrupulous work rival Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who transforms into Venom– at least when the transformation doesn’t pause to show Brock’s face.

The Sandman
Everyone who’s read the comics or seen the first movie knows that Peter’s choice to become Spider-Man was driven by the fact that his uncle Ben was killed by a criminal whom he could’ve stopped before it happened. Amazingly, Spider-Man 3 completely invalidates this character-defining moment by revealing that Uncle Ben was actually killed by someone else, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), whose life of crime has since led him to become caught in a bizarre physics experiment and become the Sandman.

Although Marko is a tragic villain (and Church plays this aspect of the character very well), his newfound invulnerability transforms him into New York’s latest terror. Though seemingly undefeatable, he isn’t protected from Spider-Man’s newfound rage.

Peter vs. Harry
At the end of Spider-Man 2, Harry Osborn (James Franco) discovers that his father was the Green Goblin, the villain of the first movie, and that his best friend Peter (Tobey Maguire) is Spider-Man, who he suspects killed him. In Spider-Man 3, he goes looking for revenge. This is a problem in itself. While Harry’s jealousy of Peter has been built up over the course of the trilogy, why would he (or anyone) then embrace his father’s secret madness?

After trying to kill Peter, Harry is injured and suffers amnesia in order to make room for everything else in the movie. When he regains his memory, his butler of all people reveals that his father’s fatal wounds were caused by his own glider.

A lot of people raise the question of why the butler didn’t tell Harry this earlier, but I can’t help but wonder how the butler even knows what killed Norman. Did he used to be a medical examiner? Furthermore, just as Harry automatically accepted his father’s villainy, he automatically accepts Peter’s innocence, and rescues him from Venom, sacrificing himself to defeat the symbiote, while the Sandman makes peace with Spider-Man and leaves the city, thus making his part in this film completely pointless.

Spider-Man 3 is a frustrating film. Not knowing whether another film in the series would be made, Sony Pictures took a more active role in the movie’s development than before. It was workshopped and re-written several times, and you can tell. Though over two hours long, Spider-Man 3 still feels overstuffed. Several characters from the comics are introduced just in case it’s the last sequel. I can’t even be sure who the main villain is. While Sam Raimi did great work with the first two Spider-Man films, here he is hobbled by a script that doesn’t understand the character of Spider-Man and showcases the comic’s universe rather than telling a story– an unfortunate portent of the “cinematic universes” of today.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
The symbiote plot makes me think a lot about the politics of the era. The United States government was routinely kidnapping and torturing people, often the people they weren’t looking for, on the logic that it was necessary to defeat an unconventional enemy. Considering how some of the other movies I’ve reviewed here dealt with the politics of the time, this actually works, but that still doesn’t explain the dancing.

Additional Notes

  • Each film begins with Peter narrating what’s going on, and it’s never necessary, but Spider-Man 3’s opening monologue is the worst offender, wherein Peter cheerfully discusses that the status quo from the end of the last film is still in effect.

  • The opening credits of Spider-Man 2 recap the first film in the form of hand-drawn images. Spider-Man 3 does it again, but uses production stills instead. Lazy.

  • One thing that’s often overlooked is Danny Elfman’s score. It’s one of the most memorable movie scores I’ve ever heard, one of Elfman’s best, and even now gets me excited about these movies.

How Did It Do?
I don’t know to what extent Spider-Man 3 could have worked. The first two movies told a complete arc which contrasted refreshingly if glaringly with the prevailing hero archetype of the post-9/11 era, exemplified by 24’s Jack Bauer and the latest iteration of James Bond, wherein self-sacrifice and self-destruction is always an acceptable cost. But regardless of where the series could have gone, Sony Pictures’ endless meddling in the production, occasioned by the studio’s presumption that Spider-Man 2 had suffered financially from Raimi’s increased creative control, virtually doomed the picture to failure.

Mind you, at $890.9 million, it was the third-biggest movie of the year, and critics were initially positive, with a 63% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But even the most positive responses were far from the glowing praise of the first two movies. As late as 2008, Raimi and company were still preparing to produce Spider-Man 4, but Sony, alarmed by the critical consensus, overreacted by pulling the plug on the entire franchise and, even more bizarrely, immediately relaunching it from scratch with (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb at the helm. I’ll probably get to that story someday, but to make a long story short, it didn’t work.

Next Time: Next

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007)

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In the Name of the King
Dir. Uwe Boll
Premiered at Brussels April 11, 2007

I didn’t pay to watch this movie.

Back in my 1977 series, I mentioned having watched several of that year’s films in the form of pirated copies on YouTube because they were not otherwise available, and that doing so was possible only because those films were so old and obscure that the distributors no longer bothered enforcing their copyrights.

This is never my first option. Despite the wishful thinking of the common consumer, online piracy is not a victimless crime. Nevertheless, I opted not to legally rent In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale as an act of conscience. It is a testament to this movie’s intellectual property value that YouTube hasn’t taken it down, despite only being ten years old; which meant that paying for it would only benefit one person.

It’s time to talk about Uwe Boll.

Boll is widely considered one of the worst filmmakers of all time, not just because his films are bad, but because they’re bad on purpose. A notorious provocateur, he’s made running themes of mass shootings, 9/11, and the Holocaust, but he also knows that mass audiences don’t see his work enough for such things to make an impact. In fact, he’s built a career on it: exploiting a loophole in the German tax code that allows investors in German films to write off their losses with a small amount of interest in the event that said film doesn’t profit. As a result, Boll makes badly-acted, badly-shot in-name-only adaptations of b-grade video games, rips off his government, and ideally his edgelord schtick pisses off some critics, whom he then challenges to boxing matches, presuming they aren’t big or strong enough to beat him.

Boll released two films to theaters in 2007, plus two more direct-to-DVD, but it’s safe to say that his anti-career was losing what little relevance it ever had. Despite continually preying on Hollywood has-beens, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale was the last of his films to feature any genuine movie stars– ironically, it probably has the most recognizable names of the lot– Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds, Ray Liotta, John Rhys-Davies, Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Lillard, and Ron Perlman come to mind.

The game it’s based on…doesn’t matter, because Boll uses the easily-acquired game licenses for name recognition, then claims that his refusal to use the source material is a protest against the game developers’ indifference.

The plot doesn’t matter either, because it doesn’t exist. I didn’t know it was possible for an entire movie to be out-of-context, but In the Name of the King is. Boll seems to have pitched the movie as a Lord of the Rings ripoff, complete with an insane $60 million budget, and just filled it with scenes where nothing of consequence happens. For example, characters are never introduced; instead the film simply cuts to them mid-scene as if we’re already supposed to know who they are, nothing happens, and the cycle begins again. Said characters also tend to engage in dialogue across space and time. So forgive me for sounding like I’m drunk and trying to remember a movie I saw ten years ago.

Statham plays a farmer named Farmer– the only name I remember from the movie because it’s brought up constantly. Farmer is just a farmer, farming, and then evil wizard Ray Liotta comes with a bunch of…I want to say orcs, but their broad, stiff gesticulations and generic grunts recall nothing so much as Power Rangers villains. They raid Farmer’s village in a ten minute fight sequence; it’s just a small skirmish, merely a pretext to get Statham separated from his wife and son, but it goes on forever, and so does every battle scene in the movie.

hat’s when King Burt Reynolds shows up and asks men to join the Army to fight Ray Liotta. This is a little silly for a couple of reasons:

  1. We already know that Ray Liotta has taken over the King’s castle and is…holding something over the King’s nephew, Matthew Lillard (like everyone else, Lillard knows he’s in an Uwe Boll movie and gives the bare minimum performance; unlike everyone else, he does this by calling on his Ren Faire days and hamming it up for his own amusement).

  2. Farmer doesn’t want to join the King’s because he thinks the Army is full of shit and won’t get him his family back. Though this kinda comes off as him being a general coward, because Farmer is just a naive farmer who farms and has no interest in the wider world or bravery or anything, though this itself is contradicted by the fact that he is able to kill a bunch of orcs with his magic CGI boomerang, and occasionally a scimitar left over from an old Aladdin halloween costume.

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

Next Time: Spider-Man 3

Perfect Stranger (2007)

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Perfect Stranger
Dir. James Foley
Premiered April 10, 2007

If any film of 2007 deserves the descriptor “stillborn,” it is James Foley’s Perfect Stranger. A thriller thrice over– corporate, erotic, and technological– Perfect Stranger reflects an understanding of both genre and modern existence that belongs in a film from no later than 1995. Today, it would be another cheapo September release from Screen Gems starring Morris Chestnut and/or Regina Hall; in 2007, it cost $60 million, starred two of Hollywood’s biggest names at the time, and was utterly convinced of its own importance.

Halle Berry stars as Rowena Price, a passionate journalist at a New York tabloid who teams up with overlooked researcher Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) to write cracking investigative pieces under a pseudonym. Their first mission, as depicted in the film, is to expose ruthlessly homophobic Republican Senator David Sachs (Gordon MacDonald) as both a closeted gay man and a serial harasser of his male interns.

Now, when I say “ruthlessly homophobic Republican Senator,” is your first image that of a fortysomething New York Jew? To anyone even casually familiar with the partisan politics of the time, that would probably be the last person they’d expect. Perfect Stranger, however, doesn’t know well enough to get the details right. And though this opening sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, it is fairly representative of its approach to all aspects of life in 2007 America.

After the newspaper shuts down Ro’s investigation, she’s approached by Grace (Nicki Aycox), a childhood friend with the clothes and hairstyle of a male Japanese soap star who gives every indication of being the villain– cornering Ro in a subway station, grinning ominously, and rambling about her sexual affair with famous ad executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Despite all appearances, Grace is not the villain. In fact, her (incredibly light, bouncy, rubbery) corpse appears in the very next scene. Immediately expressing a suspicion that Hill murdered Grace, Ro goes undercover in Hill’s company while Miles hacks into Grace’s email so the two of them can catfish him.

This is where the viewer starts to realize that there will not be a coherent plot. While working at the agency (and partaking in embarrassingly craven product placement), Ro discovers that Hill is unable to leave his wife because all of his money comes from her, leading him to seek clandestine affairs. Not only does this not make sense– whether he started the company with his wife’s money or not, he owns and operates his own wildly successful business now– it’s padded out by an hour’s worth of tedious digressions into office politics and corporate intrigue that don’t even pretend to matter. Long after numbing you into apathy, Perfect Stranger culminates in a bizarre, tenuous twist that misunderstands the very concept of suspense.

Perfect Stranger’s idea of being a “technological thriller” is to marvel at such wonders as laptops, email accounts, instant messaging, and online advertising. Hell, chat rooms– an artifact of the ‘90s if there ever was one– are the key to the investigation, and when it comes to depicting them, director James Foley goes for overkill: the camera lingers on pieces of chat dialogue, and we are forced to sit impatiently as one or multiple characters repeat aloud what was just onscreen.

No less curious is the movie’s concept of eroticism. Frontal nudity is nonexistent, unless you count a brief glimpse of some random online thumbnails, or an unconvincing confirmation that Grace’s gelatinous corpse is a natural blonde. Late in the film, Miles is revealed to be sexually obsessed with Ro, yet Ro is the one always showering him with inappropriate, unreciprocated affection.

I have never seen Halle Berry give a worse performance. Crying on command is not the same as emoting, nor is making your voice quiver like you’re in a high school production of Hair while making vague impassioned speeches. Most of the minor players can emote, but everyone, Berry included, races through the dialogue without pausing as if being paid by the minute. Giovanni Ribisi breaks from his usual overtly slimy persona to do his best Sam Rockwell impression, and while that’s an odd decision in light of his character’s actions, he is the only player capable of occasionally convincing the audience that he’s human. As for Bruce Willis, I keep wanting to say that he’s barely in the movie, but it only feels that way; Hill is a man-shaped MacGuffin, and Willis only plays him so Universal can put his name on the poster.

Everything I’ve read about Perfect Stranger screams “troubled production.” It was originally intended for release in June 2006, but hadn’t even finished filming by then. The political aside at the film’s start was almost certainly inspired by the Mark Foley scandal that broke in October of that year, implying a ton of re-shoots within just months of the eventual release date– if Berry’s uncommonly bad wig in the first eight minutes wasn’t proof enough.

The marketing was even more misguided. The erotic thriller was long dead; people were still tired of ill-fated attempts by the lower ranks of Hollywood to simultaneously titillate and outage; yet the meager “erotic” nature of the film received the most emphasis in ads. Meanwhile, the title Perfect Stranger only conjured up memories of a deliriously cheesy TGIF sitcom from the 1980s. Most bizarrely, the film was subject to an early attempt at viral marketing when Sony had the actors write blogs in character. This practice, now known inexplicably as an Alternate Reality Game, was popularized by the TV series Lost, but Lost was already popular when they started doing that, and it’s an especially rich marketing choice for a movie that treats the internet as a mysterious novelty. Even BoxOfficeMojo, a reference publication, couldn’t help but judge its “convoluted and contrived promotional presentation.”

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

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Perfect Stranger seems to have been written and produced in a matter of months, which is not a good sign unless the director’s name is Clint Eastwood. Hill’s company is headquartered in the newly rebuilt 7 World Trade Center, which had opened less than a year earlier. Hurricane Katrina is namedropped, as are Hotmail and AOL. Heidi Klum cameos as herself. “Nausea” by Beck plays in the background at a bar scene.

How Did It Do?
Perfect Stranger’s fate was exactly what you’d expect: it grossed $73.1 million, mostly from outside the United States, failing to recoup marketing expenses on top of its bloated $60 million budget. Earning an 11% rating on RottenTomatoes, critics overwhelmingly bashed it as tedious and random. James Foley, who once wowed critics and audiences with his 1990 adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, didn’t work again until 2017, when he was hired to direct Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Which, yeah, of course.

Next Time: In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007)

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Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
Dir. Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis
Premiered April 13, 2007

In deciding what movies to review for this project, there was no plan. Some I chose simply because I saw them at the time, or came to them later. Some I just remember seeing ads for, or being critically acclaimed, or alternately reviled. Sometimes, though, curiosity got the better of me.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a late-night cartoon for stoned college students, which I guess includes me since I watched my roommate’s DVDs of it in sophomore year. It revolves around a family (?) of sentient fast food products who live in south Jersey and allegedly solve crimes but don’t really do anything: reasonable Frylock, cruel, selfish Master Shake, and brainless Meatwad. Each episode was ten minutes long, which is about right.

In this film, the trio are confronted with an armada of monstrous, self-replicating exercise machines and a conniving slice of watermelon accompanied by Rush drummer Neil Peart.

The TV show’s brand of comic stupidity is only really meant to last ten minutes. This is like a 96-minute episode. It’s so stupid that it becomes funny, then comes all the way back around to being stupid again. This will not be the worst film I review, but it might be the dumbest.

Actually, that’s probably not true.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
It’s an Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie.

How Did It Do?
Before taking on this project, I had no idea that this existed, and that should tell you all you need to know. Whichever executive at First Look gave this the go-ahead for a wide release– 877 theaters across the US– was either willing to lose money on some people he liked or didn’t realize that you can’t smoke pot in a movie theater. Even a disastrous marketing campaign for the show back in January, in which neon models of the series’ Mooninites were stuck onto bridges in Boston and mistaken for bombs by police, failed to raise the movie’s profile.

On the other hand, it didn’t lose money, because the budget ($750,000) was microscopic, earning $5.5 million. Critics were neither pleased nor savage toward the film, earning a pathetic 48% rating on RT. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which began changing its name every year as a joke, kept running until 2015, and it’s as if the movie never happened.

Next Time: Perfect Stranger

Disturbia (2007)

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Disturbia
Dir. DJ Caruso
Premiered April 4, 2007

I hesitated to watch this, mostly because it starred that dude I went to see with a bag on his head a couple of years ago. I shouldn’t have worried.

In Disturbia, high schooler Kale Brecht (Shia LaBoeuf) is involved in a horrible car accident that kills his father. When one of Kale’s teachers callously tries to guilt him with this tragedy, Kale assaults him and is soon after sentenced to house arrest. Bereft of the usual teenage shenanigans, he takes a keen interest in his neighbors, particularly Bob Turner (David Morse), the man in the house behind his. After the disappearance of a local girl, Brecht, best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), and adventurous sexpot Ashley (Sarah Roemer) begin to suspect that Turner may be the culprit– an career serial killer who performs taxidermy on his victims.

If you haven’t already figured out, this movie is Rear Window for Generation Y– with a hint of The Burbs. Usually critics make such comparisons as a way to decry Hollywood’s lack of originality, but interestingly most meant it here as a compliment. Now, I get it; it’s close enough to be an homage, but different enough that it isn’t derivative. Whereas Rear Window constrained Jimmy Stewart’s character just to one window, Disturbia puts Kale, and by extension us, in three dimensions, bringing new life to the proceedings. And whereas Stewart and his compatriots watched anonymously, the characters of Disturbia aren’t hidden from their surroundings– including the man they fear most.

My issues with this film are mostly technical. For example, at one point in the film, Kale watches Ashley do yoga across the way and she seems to look right at him. “She can’t see me, it’s too dark in here,” he says to himself while the director has the room lit up for better visual effect. But that’s nitpicking. The performances are great. Kale may be a jerkwad teenager, but he’s smart, funny, and you feel for him; it’s the most charming Shia LeBoeuf has ever been. David Morse, meanwhile, is an outstandingly creepy villain. Altogether, Disturbia is a fun, well-constructed thriller and well worth a look.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Ashley’s mom is introduced wearing a skin-tight velour sweatsuit. Somehow, the clothing choices in this movie scream “2000s” more than anything else I’ve covered so far; Ashley’s outfits for example are supposed to be sexy but in hindsight just look awkward and plain. But more than anything else, it’s the soundtrack that dates this film. Whereas a better director might have been more deliberate in his song choices, this is just a random selection of semi-hits from bands like System of a Down and Kings of Leon.

Additional Notes

  • From the dad-death scene, we transition to a Spanish class laughing at the fact that “quizás” (maybe) sounds kind of like “kiss ass.” This is only funny to people to have never heard the Spanish language in their everyday lives, in a film that allegedly takes place in California.

  • Kale’s mom (Carrie-Ann Moss) somehow shuts down his iTunes account, as if it’s a paid subscription service. This is presented as making it impossible to download new music. Oh, how I laugh.

  • I like that the love interest was a true-crime geek and the most enthusiastic of the group in their collective suspicion, as well as a non-pushover. They could’ve just made her a boring love interest, but they didn’t, and equally didn’t make a big deal about it.

  • Kale tries to do a Billy Crystal-When Harry Met Sally speech for Ashley, and it works, but considering he’s watching everyone in the neighborhood, she at least acknowledges the Dobler-Dahmer-ness of it, which the earliest example I know of where that’s addressed without it being the butt of a joke.

How Did It Do?
The praise for Disturbia was not at all off the mark. It’s cheesy at the start, but it absolutely nails what it’s trying to do, and the critics got on board, garnering the movie a 69% fresh rating on RT. No joke, this is one of the best movies of the year. It might not make the top ten when I’m done– hell, maybe not even the top 20– but that’s 2007 for you. It didn’t do that well at the box office; $117.7 million, the fiftieth-biggest movie of the year worldwide; but against a $20 million budget, it’s pretty cool that they got so much out of it, both in profits and production quality, and other filmmakers loved it, so it was guaranteed to have a good shelf life. Additionally, Shia LeBoeuf should thank God that this came out before Transformers, because it probably saved him from becoming a joke right off the bat.

The Rhianna song came afterward and is wholly unrelated.

Next Time: Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Blades of Glory (2007)

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Blades of Glory
Dir. Josh Gordon and Will Speck
Premiered March 30, 2007

When I told Minnie I was doing this movie, she became very excited. She’s up for almost any Will Ferrell movie, but though I had never seen it, one gets the impression that this is one of the lesser entries in his filmography. Was it? Yes. But that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Prettyboy ace Jimmy McElroy (Jon Heder) and preening lothario Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) are professional figure skaters banned from mens’ singles after fighting each other over a tie. Years later, they discover that they can still compete as a couple. Their coach (Craig T. Nelson) optimistically tries to get them working together, while an incestuous brother-and-sister team (played perfectly by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) use their little sister/slave (Jenna Fischer) to tear the two back apart.

Some of the jokes in this film fall flat, but just as many made me laugh for a good while. As a parody of inspirational sports movies, it works great, and while it’s not entirely memorable, a fun time is guaranteed.

Additional Notes
Nick Swardson is barely in this movie, but it’s still unfortunate.

How Did It Do?
Will Ferrell was the only person in his generation of SNL performers to become a big star. Like Bill Murray before him, Ferrell was only funnyman in the 2000s with the clout and box office reliability to go outside his expected role or occasionally flounder without damaging his career. It helps in Hollywood that, like Murray, he’s really funny and a really nice guy.

At the time, Blades of Glory didn’t seem like one of those flounderings. It made $145.7 million, against a $61 million budget, and critics gave it a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But while a film’s legacy is hard to quantify, I kinda forgot that it existed before doing this review. It’s not quotable like Anchorman or Talladega Nights because the jokes are too context-specific or rely too much on visuals, and I’ve never heard anyone try. The humor is good– screenwriters John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky were partners on King of the Hill, one of the most underrated TV comedies of its era, Ferrell of course is great. Jon Heder was spending the whole late 2000s coasting off his starring role in Napoleon Dynamite, but “sheltered, androgynous perfectionist” is pretty much the perfect role for him and his overbite.

I place the blame for Blades of Glory’s forgettability squarely with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck. This was their first feature, and if you look at their subsequent credits– the disastrous GEICO Cavemen show later that same year, The Switch, Flaked, Office Christmas Party– it’s clear that the movie succeeds in spite of them. Even Jenna Fischer trying to seduce Chazz by wearing a black lace corset, which was the background on my desktop for most of 2009, almost doesn’t work because of how plainly and non-dynamically it was shot, and that’s fairly representative of the whole movie. Between this and Knocked Up, lackluster directorial style has shown itself to be just as detrimental to a comedy’s staying power as the actual comedy.

Next Time: Disturbia

Grindhouse (2007)

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Grindhouse
Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Premiered March 26, 2007

When Grindhouse was released in theaters, it was a brief phenomenon, and everyone thought I needed to see it, including my parents and elderly neighbors. I was too broke and lonely to be bothered to go to the movies on more than a very occasional basis, but they were right. Not only was Grindhouse made for 17-year-old boys who want to make movies; but it would be years before anyone could see the film in its theatrical form. Each feature was originally release d on DVD separately; a surprising disappointment given the involvement of a filmmaker as famously committed to the movie-watching experience as Quentin Tarantino.

Now that I have the complete cut, I’m glad I waited, because to watch either part of this double-feature alone, outside its gloriously schlocky conceit, is to miss the point.

Planet Terror
Dir. Robert Rodriguez

The most outwardly campy of the two films, Planet Terror begins at a disused Army base in Texas, terrorist guinea pigs led by Bruce Willis kidnap scientist Naveen Andrews and unleash the biological weapon DC2, exposing a nearby town to every virus known to man, and turning  the townsfolk into quasi-sentient zombies. Eventually, the few survivors, led principally by El Wray  and Cherry Darling (Freddy Rodriguez and Rose McGowan), find each other with the help of a missing reel and try to figure a way out. The resulting film is simultaneously funny and thrilling; a gory, T&A-ridden farce for the ages.

Death Proof
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

In Austin, Texas, a mysterious bar patron named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks four girlfriends on their night out, eventually killing them on the road with his reinforced crash-proof stunt car. Some time later, he finds new prey in a band of road-tripping women who’ve taken a 1970 Dodge Challenger (identical to the one in Vanishing Point) for a joyride. Little does Mike know that the women are Hollywood stunt professionals themselves, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted.

Of the two features, Planet Terror was the more heavily advertised at the time of release, and it’s easy to see why, as it makes the most ample use of the b-movie conceit. At the same time, it’s just as easy to see why Death Proof is the more fondly remembered. Taking more inspiration from Russ Meyer than George Romero, Death Proof is way more subdued in both its technical aspects and its content. That’s not to say it’s a less interesting or fun film, just a different kind of fun.

Before and between the films are several fake trailers, including contributions from Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright, as well as real film intros from old movie theaters. On their own, the films are okay; but as a whole, it’s a work of genius and anyone who wants to make movies should see it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Despite the throwback look and feel of the project, both films (especially Death Proof) also draw attention to the contemporary setting. None of the cars in the background are older than the mid-1990s, while people frequently check their flip-phones. The clothes are also a dead giveaway. It’s strange to see a film simultaneously evoke two different eras, but goddamn, it works.

Additional Notes

  • The “Feature Presentation” intro used twice in the film is still used at the Laemmle Playhouse, my local arthouse theater growing up in Pasadena.
  • Odd as it may sound, Naveen Andrews got the short end of the stick having his breakout role be the stoic, angsty Sayid Jarrah on Lost. If more people saw him ham it up as a mad scientist in Planet Terror, he’d probably have a more interesting career.

  • Neither film is short on cheesecake, but Death Proof’s Vanessa Ferlito is fine as fresh huckleberries.

  • In Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger, Roger Ebert remarks that as Hollywood films have become more targeted towards adolescent boys, screenwriters have increasingly interpreted the call for “strong female characters” as a call for “violent female characters.” Leave it to Tarantino to do both. As I write this, I realize I like Death Proof a lot more than Planet Terror, but I maintain you can’t have one without the other.

How Did It Do?
Just as you might expect, Grindhouse was better received by critics (83% on RT) than either Planet Terror (74) or Death Proof (65) when released separately for home video. However, despite its high profile, Grindhouse never came close to recouping its $67 million budget, grossing just $25.4 million. Even today, with ubiquitous social media, it’s questionable whether it could have turned a profit on word-of-mouth.

Rodriguez and Tarantino made Grindhouse as a tribute to the unique experience of seeing a movie in the theater, but its failure at the box office may have influenced them to release the individual films to home video separately and with the “missing” footage restored. This turned out to be a mistake, as fans clamored for the entire experience to be re-released, which it finally was in 2013. By that point, Grindhouse was popular enough, at least with filmmakers, to warrant a handful of spinoffs based on the fake trailers in the middle of the production. But in my opinion, this defeats the purpose of the fake trailers, just as actually making Buckaroo Banzai vs. the World Crime League would have, and none of them could live up to this bad boy.

Next Time: Blades of Glory