Norbit (2007)

norbit_xlg

Norbit
Dir. Brian Robbins
Premiered February 9, 2007

How the hell did we get here?

Like Epic Movie, I hesitated to watch this movie, making sure my roommates had all left for Thanksgiving before popping the DVD in. And like Epic Movie, I wasn’t really in a position to discuss this film’s importance. It’s become a cliché that Eddie Murphy’s career post-1988 has been “revenge” for some award snub or other; that he was once the biggest star on the planet, the top comedian in a decade when comedians were bigger than rock stars, and that those days are never coming back. But I’m mostly unfamiliar with Murphy’s filmography, even the good ones.

However, Norbit does have an important place in the history of Hollywood: it marks the point at which bad comedies became a genre unto itself, with their own tropes, visual style, and cadre of anonymous directors. In the case of Norbit, that director is Brian Robbins, who went on to direct Murphy’s zero-percenter A Thousand Words. If the leaked Sony emails are anything to go by, studios don’t want to make these movies. Why they have to is unknown.

Norbit (Eddie Murphy) is a simpering, lisping 1950s-style nerd who spends most of his life in an unpleasant relationship with the hideous gangland princess Rasputia (alsoB Eddie Murphy). This is extremely weird as both Norbit and Rasputia are also played by child actors free of any affectation, so when Rasputia eventually becomes preening, hateful, adulterous, and abusive, it comes right the fuck out of nowhere. Murphy also plays Norbit’s horrifyingly racist Chinese adoptive father.

When Norbit’s childhood sweetheart Kate (Thandie Newton) comes back to town with her fiancé (Cuba Gooding Jr.), he tries to leave Rasputia, only for Rasputia to lie about being pregnant. Sparks fly between Norbit and Kate, leading to… you know what, fuck it. The movie doesn’t care. I don’t care. With it’s CG pratfalls, cringe-inducingly racist humor, lots of flat jokes at the expense of overweight children, I was totally prepared to unleash my fury on this film, but the whole is so empty and flaccid that I can’t care.

Watching this, Murphy seemed like he was being held hostage to make this movie, but on closer inspection I discovered that he and his brother Charlie wrote the screenplay. I don’t know why anyone would write this, but it’s revealing in how Murphy views the world and himself. Maybe. Fuck this movie.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The Pussycat Dolls and Kelis’ “Milkshake” are prominently featured. Two characters are pimps and it’s no big deal. Pubic hair is depicted as inherently disgusting and undesirable. Actually, this movie seems to be set in 2005.

How Did It Do?
Norbit infamously received an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup. Mind you, Best Makeup is one of the squirrelier categories, and you can’t fault Rick Baker for doing his job well. But you can fault global audiences for making it the biggest movie of February 2007, grossing a truly astonishing $159.3 million against an equally astonishing $60 million budget. Critics rightfully hated it, earning the film a 9% fresh rating on RT. Murphy had recently received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Dreamgirls, and many critics believed that Norbit would cost him that prize. He didn’t win, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if that was why.

Next Time: Operation Homecoming

La Vie en Rose (2007)

la_mome

La Vie en Rose
La Môme
Dir. Olivier Dahan
Premiered at Berlin February 8, 2007

I was starting to wonder if I’d become numb to some of these movies. La Vie en Rose was the third French prestige film I’d seen in a week (we’ll get to the others later), and at first glance it seemed disappointingly similar to every other musician biopic from the 2000s. But with time, it got to me. For a while.

La Vie en Rose tells the life story of Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard, in a star-making role), a woman of extremely humble origins who used her vocal talents to escape poverty, becoming the defining voice of mid-20th century Paris. However, neither her talents nor her success could not save her from continuing to a very tragic life: abandoned by her mother, raised for a time in a brothel and for a time on the streets with her father, being abused and manipulated by the seedy underbelly of Parisian entertainment, falling for a married man only for him to die in a plane crash, and a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse leading her to age far beyond her years and die at the premature age of 47.

At 141 minutes, La Vie en Rose is far longer than it needs to be. The cinematography is dark, claustrophobic, and overuses the handheld camera, while the editing sometimes resembles a low-budget documentary. No effort is made to conceal the digital nature of the production, which is only accentuated by the period setting.

However, the saving grace of the film is Cotillard as Piaf. It is a rare for a June wide release to win its star an Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe, but here it’s understandable and inarguably deserved. Her performance is seamless and continually draws the viewer in. It helped at the time that Cotillard was relatively unknown, but even now I don’t see her, I only see Édith Piaf. And ultimately, that’s what La Vie en Rose is all about.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The aforementioned issues with cinematography and editing.

How Did It Do?
La Vie en Rose grossed $86.3 million against a $25 million budget, most of that coming from its native France, where whopping 10% of the total population saw it in theaters. For comparison, that’s about the same as the proportion of British who have seen Dunkirk. It was a patriotic mega-hit.

It earned a 74% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Lead Role (launching Cotillard into stardom in the English-speaking world) as well as for Best Makeup, and received a nomination for Best Costume Design.

Next Time: Norbit

Epic Movie (2007)

mv5bmta3ndm5odu3nzleqtjeqwpwz15bbwu3mdgymjgynde-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_

Epic Movie
Dir. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer
Premiered January 25, 2007

Epic Movie is not a parody of epics. At no point does it reference such classics as Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Papillon, Amadeus, or Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

Nor is Epic Movie itself epic. Whereas actual, watchable parodies Airplane, Not Another Teen Movie, or anything by Mel Brooks really capture the mood and feel of the films they lovingly mock, Epic Movie is a hateful little film with no production value, attention span, awareness of its source material, or sense of humor. I didn’t even see YouTube comments on the trailer try to defend this piece of shit, and that’s saying something.

The best thing to be said about Epic Movie is that it wasn’t a hard watch. Not a minute went by that didn’t give me something to include in this review. It’s so lazy, so random, so incoherent, so loathsome, and so stupid that it could be taken down from any angle.

Drawing its general plot from the story– or rather what writer-director team Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer assume to be the story– of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Epic Movie begins with overgrown orphans Edward (Kal Penn), Peter (Adam Campbell), Susan (Jayma Mays), and Lucy (Jayma Mays). Through various contrivances, the four end up with golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, only for Wonka (Crispin Glover, the former George McFly and a man who demands to be taken even more seriously than Jared Leto) to take them prisoner in order to harvest their organs for his chocolates, resulting in a generic club music video wherein Wonka begins vivisecting the protagonists alive.

Did I mention that this opens with David Carradine being tied up in a speedo? I’d say that hasn’t aged well, but that wouldn’t distinguish it from anything else in the movie

The orphans escape Wonka by going through the wardrobe into “Gnarnia” (go with it) where Edward is seduced by the White Bitch (Jennifer Coolidge) into betraying the others…somehow. I don’t know how. The movie doesn’t explain. But the main thing is that they’re actually a family separated at birth, despite all appearances, and their return fulfills some kind of prophecy, and the White Bitch has the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code as a henchman, and there’s a goat-man who loves a version of Scarface where Tony Montana is also a goat-man…and Aslan is Fred Willard.

And so it goes: at one point, Lucy gets her tongue ripped out (no story), and after making a joke about how she can’t talk, she immediately starts talking again. And when Susan first appears, and only when she first appears, she has disgustingly hairy legs. Um, okay.

The acting is elementary school theater-level. Even the actors I recognize, people I’ve seen do well, are like this. It’s as if Seltzer and Friedberg told everybody to phone it in, because what’s commitment in comedy?

Also odd are the choices of targets for parody. For a film that purports to take the piss out of the then-recent wave of fantasy movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is conspicuously absent. Instead, the film instantly dates itself by taking aim mostly at The Da Vinci Code, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Superman Returns, and the Narnia movies. Epic Movie also makes sure to skewer acknowledge the existence of such dramatic epics as Nacho Libre, Click, Snakes on a Plane, Talladega Nights, Borat, and the SNL sketch “Lazy Sunday.” Because what’s more ripe for parody than things that weren’t serious to begin with?

People always say that Seltzer and Friedberg are making fun of posters and trailers rather than movies, but I always assumed it to be hyperbole. It isn’t. I’m not sure that Seltzer and Friedberg have ever seen any movie. Unsurprisingly, most of the jokes in this movie don’t make any sense. I wouldn’t even call most of the attempts at humor “jokes.” In fact, I wouldn’t call them “attempts.” Let’s have two examples:

  1. Wolverine gives Peter the finger with his adamantium claws, but the joke doesn’t work because the movie being parodied already made that joke.
  2. The film mocks the fact that the cast of the Harry Potter movies are way older than their characters, which might surprise some of you who have noticed that that’s not remotely true. That’s Kids in the Hall alum/person who should not be here Kevin McDonald playing Harry, by the way.

The lack of concern or consideration in every conceivable way is awful, but such mindlessness is so expected at this point that it feels pointless to even take note of it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Epic Movie might be the most horribly dated motion picture of all time, as it eagerly references “Thug Life,” K-Fed, Diddy, drift racing, Sudoku, Dr. Phil, Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, MySpace, The Olsen Twins, Saddam Hussein (who was executed between the film’s production and premiere), 50 Cent’s tattoos, the then-current run of GEICO ads, Cialis, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” (superfluous comma not mine), The Pussycat Dolls, Fantasia Barrino, Punk’d, Cribs, “This Is Why I’m Hot,” Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie adopting African children, the fact that Edward is a half-parody of his own character from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and refers to the White Bitch in-universe as “Stifler’s Mom,” the fact that Lucy wears a designer velour sweatsuit, and Kanye West’s famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” ad-lib in response to Hurricane Katrina.

How Did It Do?
Epic Movie grossed $86.9 million against a $20 million budget, ensuring that Seltzer and Friedberg, who had broken into directing with the previous year’s Date Movie, would have work for years to come. So while the film got a 2% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, S&F pumped these out, and the critics hated them ever more: The next one got 1%, and the one after that got 0%, but they kept making money…until they suddenly fell through the bottom, now relegated to micro-budget direct-to-VOD releases.

Next Time: La Vie en Rose

Chapter 27 (2007)

mv5bmtc5mdq2mtu4nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwnda1mdy2mg-_v1_

Chapter 27
Dir. J.P. Schaefer
Premiered at Sundance January 25, 2007

When first-time filmmaker J.P. Schaefer, Chapter 27 was a bold move, and bound to leave an impact. Inspired by a series of interviews with Mark David Chapman, the crazed fan who assassinated former Beatle John Lennon, the film attempts to find insight into the mind of one of recent history’s most famous assassins. There’s only one problem: if the movie is any indication, Mark David Chapman is not interesting.

It doesn’t help that Chapman is played by Jared Leto, the former teen heartthrob, erstwhile screamo frontman, and future notoriously pretentious Oscar-winner. With Leto in literally every scene, he has unlimited time to show off, playing Chapman in a croaking sing-song voice that recalls Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending as he embarks on a three-day jaunt to New York City to re-enact the plot of Catcher in the Rye, followed by meeting and killing John Lennon outside his apartment building. This is not Chapman’s first attempt to catch the man, and his obsession more-or-less conforms to Donald Glover’s assessment that crazy men always want to kill people they love in order to own them.

That’s a reasonable angle for the film to take, but it doesn’t justify the laser focus on Chapman, which creates other problems as well. Aside from a fellow fan with oddly clunky dialogue (Lindsay Lohan) and a curiously self-aware paparazzo (Judah Friedlander), the film consists almost entirely of endless, repetitive monologues by Chapman, intercut with stock footage and non-sequitur bits of other scenes in a vain attempt to hide the fact that there’s nothing to look at. Undermining his own ambitions as a screenwriter and a director, J.P. Schaefer seems to think that the mere idea of a film about Mark David Chapman would be interesting in itself, and accordingly comes off as smug and lazy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The involvement of Lindsay Lohan. In the mid-2000s, she was everywhere, making a huge effort to escape her child-actress fame and take on more diverse roles, such as this and Robert Altman’s swan song A Prairie Home Companion. By the end of 2007, she would be a national punchline. We’ll get to how that happened later, but it’s relevant to this review because…

How Did It Do?
Chapter 27 wasn’t released in commercial theaters until March 2008, after getting mostly disastrous reviews in the festival circuit (18% fresh on RottenTomatoes), and long after Lohan’s modest involvement had become a liability. In a rare instance of a movie being distributed independently as well as produced independently, Canadian outfit Peace Arch Entertainment released the film into just 11 theaters, making less than $200,000 globally. Peace Arch went under in 2013, and J.P. Schaefer never directed another film.

Next Time: Epic Movie

King of California (2007)

king-of-california-549a012d3b758

King of California
Dir. Mike Cahill
Premiered at Sundance January 24, 2007

In the early 17th Century, the Spanish priest and mathematician Juan Florismarte Torres led an expedition through Alta California, then thought to be an island. Along the Santa Clara River, his company was attacked by the native Tataviam Indians, and his cache of gold was lost.

The story isn’t true. The Spanish didn’t explore California by land for nearly another 150 years. But if you drive away from Los Angeles in every direction, you will come across little valleys, farms, a hint of the motherland that once was, being systematically anglicized, paved, and forgotten. It is into this world that King of California begins.

Abandoned by her mother, teen Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) picks up her father Charlie (Michael Douglas) from a mental institution where he has been held over a year for bipolar disorder. Charlie’s world has changed; in just a couple years, the family farm has been transformed into an anachronism surrounded by lifeless, remote bedroom communities, all with rambling, nonsensical Spanish names. Miranda has dropped out of school to support herself, and now must support him. And he has a dream: to discover the gold that Fr. Torres lost.

Miranda, the realist, has always doubted Charlie’s flights of fancy, dismissing them as manic episodes. But over and over, his deductions and predictions prove right, bringing her into the hunt for buried treasure… buried under a Costco.

California Nationalism, at least in its present incarnation, is too young to have played a factor in the writing of King of California, but writer-director Mike Cahill clearly knows his stuff, and has a point to make. At one point, a ten-year-old Miranda is obliged to build a model of one of the Spanish Missions dotting the landscape, a rite of passage for all fourth graders.* Charlie’s awareness of the country’s dark, troubled, and decidedly non-Anglophone heritage is rejected and ignored by others. And his beard is cleverly groomed in the style of a Spanish conquistador. He is a man refusing to let go of the past, and although his means may be dubious, he is ultimately moral for doing so.

Although the film’s score often goes too far into whimsy, King of California is an unconventionally beautiful look at my home state at a low point in its character. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to see Michael Douglas outside his usual cold-blooded bastard persona– this is the most charming he has ever been, and it’s worth seeing just for that.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
How much has changed indeed. The dense, remote, rural clusters of prefabricated homes in which the film is set are known as exurbs, and were popular among lower-middle-class commuters in the 1990s and 2000s. Just as the film came out, however, the price of gas skyrocketed to the point that it became cheaper to live in the inner city. People got rid of their cars, the values of the houses collapsed, and most became underwater while many others were never lived in, and to this day sit abandoned. The bond market crashed, and then the stock market crashed, and then the global economy crashed. And here we are.

Additional Notes
*The exception being me, who, despite being a devotee of Californio history, had a teacher who had spent her whole life in Georgia until that year and knew nothing of the land. Technically nobody in my class should’ve gone on to fifth grade because of that.

King of California is the only writing or directing credit for novelist Mike Cahill, an elusive figure who has the shortest iMDB page I have ever seen, and allegedly had wanted to make the film as early as 1980 (confusingly, since there is also a much more prolific filmmaker of the same name). For that reason, expect to eventually see this film highlighted again as part of Zack Clopton’s “No Encores.”

How Did It Do?
King of California was a total flop, grossing $1 million against a $10 million budget, and received a 63% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

In 2007, many dismissed the film as a bundle of indie quirk; in 2017, however, it makes a creepy amount of sense as a piece of nationalist cinema. And just as San Diego, the oldest city in California, was rebuilt in the 20th Century to look even older than it really was, King of California evokes a bigger, older, more impressive portrait of the country it is unknowingly making the case for. With over a quarter of Californians now favoring independence from the United States, I wonder where Cahill stands.

Next Time: Chapter 27

Son of Rambow (2007)

mv5bmtm1mjm0odc5n15bml5banbnxkftztcwmjmxmdg1mq-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_

Son of Rambow
Dir. Garth Jennings
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

Anyone who wants to prove the existence of Carl Jung’s fabled collective unconscious has no further to look than cinema’s tendency toward micro-genres. Every once in a while, a series of films come out with very similar premises. These particular instances are never the type big, successful blockbusters that inspire imitators, and they’re made too close together to be following each other’s lead, yet there they are. People just come up with the same ideas at the same time.

The 2000s gave us a couple of these. Toward the beginning of the decade were Admissions Comedies; movies about young people attempting to get into a university or pay their tuition through some sort of misdeed (Orange County, Stealing Harvard, The Perfect Score, Accepted). Then there was the truly bizarre trend of ugly, borderline-unwatchable action movies that were also nonsenical, pretentious political manifestos, all of which flopped (Southland Tales, Smokin’ Aces, War, Inc.).

Son of Rambow, as far as I can tell, was the first of another notable micro-trend the amateur-filmmaking genre. While there’s never a shortage of new movies about making movies, a small selection of movies in the late 2000s (Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, Super 8) decided instead to focus on the relationship between movies and ambitious outsiders who love them– which at least runs less of a risk of alienating audiences with Hollywood insider talk. And while it was a bit weird to get these all at once, it worked out a hell of a lot better than the political action movies did.

The film begins with Will (Bill Milner), a child being raised by a single mother (Jessica Stevenson) in some sort of hardline religious movement in the early 1980s. At school, he gets in a fight with incorrigible bad boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter). The child of absentee parents living in an old folks’ home with his bullying brother (Ed Westwick), Carter quickly cons Will into giving up his late father’s wristwatch, and then into helping make a movie to win a national youth filmmaking contest. Because of his religious upbringing, Will has never watched a movie before, but once exposed to Carter’s pirated copy of First Blood, a childhood’s worth of pent-up creative yearning bursts forth, and the two become genuine friends.

After a long period of shooting, Will and Carter’s efforts attract the attention of their classmates, as well as the Prince-styled French exchange student with whom the entire student body is obsessed. But the rapidly expanding scope of their production drives a wedge between Will and Carter and threatens both of their home lives.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like if Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapted Stand By Me, this’ll give you a pretty good idea. That’s not always an asset. One of the pleasures of movies about filmmaking is that it enables the viewer to directly look into the artist’s imagination, which Son of Rambow does to the fullest. However, there’s not enough of a visual distinction between Will’s artistic visions and his everyday life, especially early on with questionably fake-looking stunts and effects and The Gods Must Be Crazy-type fast-motion.

I also wish the religion thing had been explained better. While the Brotherhood’s cultish disdain for media and distinctly Soviet style of dress is somewhat exoticized, the lack of explanation for who they are suggests that the viewer is supposed to just know. (They’re Plymouth Brethren, which I had to look up and had never heard of before).

But these are minor issues; the unflinchingly chaotic friendship between Will and Carter anchors the film wonderfully. Finally, Sundance 2007 has provided a movie for me to truly like. However, the best is yet to come.

Additional Notes
It’s a very minor thing, but the kids actually appear to be middle school-aged, by which I mean the girls are way taller than the boys. You never see that in live-action film, and you can’t help but appreciate the commitment to authenticity.

How Did It Do?
Son of Rambow spent over a year in the festival circuit before finally being released in May 2008, shortly after an ill-fated attempt to revive the Rambo franchise itself. Grossing $10.9 million against a $6.5 million budget, Son did virtually no business except in its native UK, where it was a relative hit, spending two weeks at #2 in the box office. While it didn’t make it’s money back, it gave a boost in prestige to director Garth Jennings, who had come and gone from Hollywood after his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bombed, eventually returning for Illumination’s 2016 film Sing.

Next Time: King of California

No End in Sight (2007)

no-end-in-sight-movie-poster-2007-1020403493

No End in Sight
Dir. Charles Ferguson
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, violating international law. When the US took the initiative by pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, no expense was spared: the military had its biggest mobilization since World War II. President George H.W. Bush insisted “this will not be another Vietnam.” And he kept that promise.

But if it’s true that our leaders are always fighting the last war, God forbid an easy victory. That is the lesson, and the only lesson, of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight.

Covering the willful failure of US forces to prepare properly for an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, No End in Sight largely glosses over the reasoning behind the war. While discussing the failures of intelligence– possibly deliberate– that led to the war happening is a legitimate discussion, it was also the only discussion the culture at large was having, particularly in the mid-2000s because of a really complicated scandal that I won’t bother trying to explain. And as most people who were against the war in Iraq were not pacifists, its bears analyzing the profound arrogance that led us, by the time of this documentary’s release, into the very nadir of one of America’s greatest military disasters.

As Ferguson interviews Iraqi civilians, combat veterans, policy experts, and administrators, most notably former Deputy Secretary of State (and not actor) Richard Armitage, a portrait of the Bush administration’s thought process emerges that is both embarrassing and terrifying. Plans had been made for the Iraq War since the election. It’s a testament to the administration’s laser focus on somehow engineering the Iraq War to be the defining struggle of a new generation, as if such things can be scheduled. In a matter of weeks, the planners assured, postwar Iraq would be harmonious, pro-America, led by Iraqi exile and notorious fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and free of US combat troops.

And it was going to be awesome. It would be fought as cheaply as possible, using a fraction of the troops actually needed, with no armor, no extra batteries, no spare tires, no extra water. None of the people in the war planning trust had served in combat, most spoke no Arabic and had never been to the Middle East, and many still refused to visit. Never since Vietnam had US policymakers been so sure of success in a war purely on the grounds that they were Americans, and thus winners.

When the total absence of adequate troops enabled order to break down in the streets of Iraq, the official US policy was that the war was over, and any claims to the contrary were bad for morale. The film’s subjects, people who understood Iraq, were rebuffed. The White House refused to read any serious analysis and dismissed any serious consideration as naysaying and bad for morale.

No End in Sight holds up decently as a historical document. If you want to do this done wrong, dated, and incoherent, watch Fahrenheit 9/11. This is the adult version. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, though, it consists of a lot of in-the-moment fury, and as a result gets competitive. For every paragraph I wrote above, the film has four or five people say the same thing over and over. Furthermore, the film offers little to no insight into the political culture that refused to hear any bad news, and while Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to participate in the film, their involvement wasn’t necessary for the PBS newsmagazine Frontline to do an excellent exposé on them around the same time. Frontline seems more like where this movie belongs. And hey, I love TV documentaries, I discovered the entire medium through television, but this is not a visual presentation worthy of the Sundance Film Festival.

How Did It Do?
No End in Sight was picked up by Magnolia, who released the film into theaters in July 2007, where it earned $1.4 million, a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and an Academy Award nomination for best Documentary Feature. The film made a lot of year-end top-ten lists, and while the critical enthusiasm for the film was understandable at the time, this is a little extreme. Eleven movies in, it’s not at all clear that 2007 was a great movie year, but we’re getting there. No End in Sight isn’t even the best movie of this rather mediocre Sundance; it’s not coming close to my year-end faves.

Next Time: Son of Rambow

Waitress (2007)

waitress

Waitress
Dir. Adrienne Shelly
Premiered at Sundance January 21, 2007

Waitress is the third and final feature from director Adrienne Shelly, who sadly never lived to see it released; in November 2006, she was murdered by a disgruntled and likely psychotic construction worker. Months later, the film was the toast of Sundance and became an unlikely swan song for a cinematic talent cut tragically short. So how does it hold up?

Keri Russell stars as Jenna Hunterson, a waitress and pastry chef savant who plans to win a pie contest and start a new life far away from her abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto). When she becomes pregnant, however, her plans unravel, and she quickly falls under the spell of her awkward but charming– and married– obstetrician (Nathan Fillion).

The weakest link in the story itself is husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), whose cartoonish villainy resembles a redneck version of Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers. It’s unpleasant and out of place. It may be realistic, but just because something is true to life does not make it appropriate for the story being told, especially when everything else in the film, from its lo-fi soundtrack to its overabundance of small-town quirk, is a little too cute. Consider how innocently Waitress depicts the discomfortingly pernicious love interest (Eddie Jemison) of one of Jenna’s coworkers (Shelly), which only puts Earl’s characterization into deeper contrast.

Nonetheless, Shelly’s distinctive visual style elevates the film, as does the natural chemistry between Russell and Fillion. In addition, Andy Griffith is a joyful presence as the finicky, sarcastic owner of the restaurant where Jenna works. Overall, the film is okay.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film nearly drowns in 2000s indie tropes. I could elaborate, but it would just be a repetition of my remarks on several of the other Sundance movies.

How Did It Do?
Waitress, the sole posthumous release at Sundance, was picked up by Fox Searchlight and received a wide release in May, grossing $22 million against a $1.5 million budget. Critics were mostly glowing, earning it an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Keith Phipps of the A.V. Club was notably cooler towards the film, but praised Shelly’s sadly wasted potential, raising the uncomfortable possibility that the movie received higher-than-usual critical approval due to her murder. In any case, Waitress was adapted into a musical in 2015, which made it to Broadway the following year.

Next Time: No End in Sight

Year of the Dog (2007)

year-of-the-dog_b

Year of the Dog
Dir. Mike White
Premiered at Sundance January 20, 2007

Spoiler warning.

Here’s a weird confession: when I was in middle school, my idol was a local screenwriter named Mike White. Like me, White was from Pasadena, and while my hometown wasn’t exactly off the beaten path, it meant a lot to me to see a fellow native succeed in television and film. He was a writer for the terrific TV series Freaks and Geeks as well as the social thriller Chuck & Buck, and first became known to me as the writer of Jake Kasdan’s underrated admissions comedy Orange County, which was briefly my favorite movie. He then moved on to writing School of Rock, Cracking Up, whatever. Inexplicably, he is also one of the credited writers on this year’s The Emoji Movie. You win some, you lose some. Badly.

But until this year, White has only ever directed one film: 2007’s little-seen Year of the Dog. And despite its deeply troublesome flaws, it is very much in keeping with his screenplays. Most of his writing has been about people who take things too far, and in Year of the Dog, that person is Peggy (Molly Shannon), a spinster/office drone whose life falls apart after her beagle Pencil dies from eating something toxic, suspecting that her hunting-enthusiast neighbor (John C. Reilly) is somehow responsible.

Peggy’s efforts to find a new companion lead her into the orbit of ASPCA volunteer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), whose concern for animal welfare inspires her to become a vegan. But it’s Mike White, so veganism is the tip of the iceberg, betraying the trust of her best friend (Regina King), family (Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy), and boss (Josh Pais, last seen just a day earlier as a pervy gynecologist in Teeth) as her newfound passion veers into the reckless, the unethical, and the criminal. Every time it looks like she may realize that there’s something missing in her life more than a dog, she instead doubles down, and it’s terrifying.

Mike White the screenwriter gets this. Mike White the director doesn’t. Year of the Dog’s theatrical trailer presents the film as a feel-good rom-com. In reality, its trajectory is more like Chuck & Buck than School of Rock, but you could be forgiven for not realizing that until deep into its 93-minute runtime, as the overall aesthetic is stereotypically Sundance: sunny, pastel, overreliant on musical cues– it even borrows a number from Napoleon Dynamite.

Much like in Teeth, the clash between story and tone could be forgiven as a beginner’s mistake. But the sudden change of direction at the movie’s end can’t. Up to this point, it’s so clear where we’re headed that the third act is truly baffling. The closest analogy I can think of is 2014’s Let’s Be Cops, a critically reviled frathouse comedy about two civilians who decide to impersonate police officers and abuse the privileges thereof. It starts like a cautionary tale, but instead of having the characters face the consequences of their actions, or go into antihero mode and shamefully get away, the movie avoids any and all repercussions, pretends that nothing wrong was done, ends with a moral of “follow your dream.”

It appears that Let’s Be Cops was following a trail already blazed by Year of the Dog: after traumatizing her niece, potentially breaking up her best friend’s engagement, drunkenly destroying her sister-in-law’s furs, embezzling from her company, and breaking into her neighbor’s house to attack him with a hunting knife, Peggy not only gets away with everything, no questions asked, but is the hero of the movie, welcomed back to her place of work, only to leave and pursue her true calling of animal rights activism. The only explanation I can think of is that White started writing a screenplay about obsession, started researching PETA and whatnot for reference, went native, and changed the ending without thinking about the implications. It’s a surprisingly dunderheaded move from such a gifted guy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Peggy and Al (Reilly) begin the film as strangers despite living next door to each other for what appears to be years. Layla (King) references going to see the latest Spider-Man (or was it Superman?), and ruins her favorite designer velour sweatsuit. One of Peggy’s co-workers (Craig Cackowski) mentions having eaten a croissanwich.

How Did It Do?
If you’ve seen Year of the Dog and think I’m an asshole, you’re in good company: the movie earned a 70% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But you probably didn’t see it, because it was released into just 152 theaters and grossed $1.6 million. Mike White, a true screenwriter-auteur working equally in film and television, turned his efforts to the latter to create his most acclaimed series, HBO’s Enlightened. Since the series’ cancellation, he has returned to film, writing the script for this year’s Beatriz at Dinner, the self-styled “first great film of the Trump era,” and now directing his second feature, “Brad’s Status.”

Next Time: Waitress

Once (2007)

once_xlg

Once
Dir. John Carney
Premiered at Sundance January 20, 2007

A movie musical with an original story and original music? They spoil us.

In Dublin, an anonymous, heartbroken vacuum repairman (Glen Hansard) doubles as a street musician; playing standards for tourists by day and original compositions for his lonely father by night. His skills as a songwriter attract the interest of a much younger Czech migrant (Marketa Irglova) who is also musically talented. When Hansard discovers that she has an estranged husband and young daughter, he quickly decides to reunite with his ex-girlfriend in London, but not before recording an album with his new friend, imagining what could have been.

In reviewing and ranking these films, I’ve tried to balance my judgment between objective filmmaking and personal taste. With Once, I find myself in a dilemma. Nothing is wrong with the movie; it’s heartfelt, honest, well-acted, and the music is terrific– but none of it is really my cup of tea. At worst, I thought it could’ve been a little more visually interesting; this almost reminds me of mumblecore. Honestly, I’m probably going to forget I saw this film.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
I’ve never been to Ireland, but from what I’ve seen and heard, this is a pretty good portrait of Dublin during the Celtic Tiger era.

Additional Notes
Apparently, Cillian Murphy was considered for Glen Hansard’s part, which seems crazy.

How Did It Do?
Once grossed $23.3 million against a $150,000 budget. It received a 97% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, made at least 36 published top ten lists at the end of the year, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (which is totally fair). I just don’t get it.

Next Time: Year of the Dog