National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: The Bucket List


Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Alvin and the Chipmunks

I Am Legend (2007)


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

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

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

Not a movie theater

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

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

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

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

From there, the movie hits a brick wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Charlie Wilson’s War

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: I Am Legend

The Golden Compass (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Sweeney Todd

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: The Golden Compass

Beowulf (2007)


Dir. Robert ZemeckisPremiered November 5, 2007

Good fucking Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Bee Movie (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Beowulf

Dan in Real Life (2007)


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

Why are you all so obsessed with this movie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Bee Movie