Youth Without Youth (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Dan in Real Life

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Enchanted (2007)

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Enchanted
Dir. Kevin LimaPremiered at London October 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Youth Without Youth

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour (2007)

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

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

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

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

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

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

That this movie was made is not totally surprising. That it was ever shown in one theater, let alone received a genuine 1,121-theater wide release, is astonishing. The director appears to have made it with her family and a handful of friends, none of whom were professional actors. The film appears to have been shot on an early digital camera with bad focus, and is poorly lit when lit at all. I got some (unintended) laughs out of this, but mostly was bored out of my mind.

The best thing that can be said about Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour is that, if you squint really hard, it seems like something Harmony Korine could possibly have made on purpose. That doesn’t mean it’s watchable, because I would’ve gotten an F if I’d turned this in in film school. Or high school. Or middle school. Probably elementary school, too. This can only be, by default, the worst film of 2007.

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

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

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

No information could be found regarding the promised sequels.

Next Time: Enchanted

American Gangster (2007)

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American Gangster
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered October 19, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If that sounds dry and academic, fear not. From a patient and unassuming first act, American Gangster evolves into an unlikely thrill ride that continues to top itself in its monumental audacity, not through high-octane action or gore, but in how far the story ends up going, climaxing in a mesmerizing and long-awaited face-to-face between Lucas and Roberts. I don’t want to spoil it; just watch this movie. Shot in standard 16:9 ratio, American Gangster may not technically fit the bill for a Ridley Scott epic, but it sure as hell feels like one.

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

Next Time: Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

Lions for Lambs (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs This Was Made in 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: American Gangster

30 Days of Night (2007)

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30 Days of Night
Dir. David Slade
Premiered at Screamfest October 16, 2007

A couple weeks ago, Minnie confided in me that she couldn’t imagine witches being scary. How could they be? She had never known a media landscape that made portrayed them as serious horror villains.

I feel the same way about vampires. As a media concept, vampires are relatively new, and the rules are still being written; unfortunately I had the luck to grow up in an era when they weren’t scary. Even before Twilight, vampires were basically immortal, urbane gentlemen who liked on occasion to drink human blood. What was the big deal?

Luckily, 30 Days of Night was here to set me straight.

Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) is the sheriff of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. Located far above the Arctic Circle, the boreal winter enshrouds the town in a month of darkness– making it the ideal pray for a roving band of vampires who arrive by ship, and whose coming is announced by a rambling madman (Ben Foster). In the course of events, Eben is reunited with his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), a fire marshall who’s stranded in town due to the darkness. As the vampires close in on the town, Eben and Stella join forces with a precarious group of survivors as they wait for the sun to rise once more.

Based on a comic book from 2002, 30 Days of Night is a textbook example of how to reinvigorate a classic monster that’s lost its edge. It probably would’ve succeeded too, if the picture itself wasn’t so cheap-looking. For a film that revolves around darkness, it’s frustratingly overlit, making everything look like a soundstage despite having been filmed on location (one can’t help but imagine it would look better if made today, in the golden age of wide-aperture digital cinematography). The design of the vampires is questionable; all have sharp teeth, claws, and rodentlike black eyes, but some mysteriously resemble the victims of overzealous face lifts.

The film’s buildup is terrific, with a standout performance from Ben Foster, and Josh Hartnett seems way more comfortable in genre pieces than he ever did as a leading man (about which more below), but 30 Days of Night, more than any other film of 2007, fulfills its potential on paper while squandering it with a complete lack of style.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Marijuana is still illegal in Alaska; Eben’s nana has an illegal grow operation.

How Did It Do?
Released to theaters just three days after its Screamfest debut, 30 Days of Night grossed $75.5 million against a $30 million budget, and helped Josh Hartnett get out of a rut caused by both The Black Dahlia and being too handsome to be given the opportunity play to his own strengths, but fiercely divided critics, earning a 51% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Roger Ebert especially liked Danny Huston hamming it up as the lead vampire, but he, like many, were conflicted about the film’s balance between style and realism.

Next Time: Lions for Lambs

Paranormal Activity (2007)

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Paranormal Activity
Dir. Oren Peli
Premiered at Screamfest October 14, 2007

Few trends in genre cinema are as fast-moving or as readily delineated as horror, and although I came into horror as an adult, Hollywood’s progression in the 2000s was open for all to see: J-horror remakes, torture porn, and finally found footage. Although 2007’s Paranormal Activity is credited with starting the latter trend, it neither originated nor popularized the concept.

Found footage, as a horror subgenre and as a term, truly began with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, wherein filmmaker Daniel Myrick sought to recreate the same phenomenon as Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, but in a way that could be credible in an era of multiple news sources. Despite its success, augmented by an ultra-low budget, The Blair Witch Project inspired no notable imitators in its time– but that’s a good thing; we needed to wait until a time in which people could be expected to film anything at any time– say, 2007.

Twentysomething Katie (Katie Featherston) is troubled by a presence in her home. She insists it’s a ghost– ghosts are human– and suspects that it has been following her since her childhood home was destroyed in a fire. To uncover the mystery and prove her suspicions real, Katie has enlisted the help of her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat), a technology obsessive intent on recording evidence of Katie’s suspicions. At first, Micah is skeptical, but mounting evidence that something horrible looming over the happy couple begins to tear them apart.

Paranormal Activity is interesting not only in how it reflects the digital revolution, but how it doesn’t. At the time of its 2007 release, YouTube was two years old, and reliable streaming video was barely older; even digital theater projection had been experimental technology had been an experimental novelty as recently as 2001. Hollywood and the world caught up faster than anyone expected, and the time was ripe for found footage to find new life.

Yet the film’s post-production– both its style and the very fact of it– embodies a deliberate amateurism that the YouTube generation had already eclipsed, from the sluggish build up to the telltale iMovie text. We know that this isn’t an actual depiction of real events; just as Daniel Myrick knew he couldn’t recapture the hysteria around War of the Worlds, so filmmaker Oren Peli must have known that he couldn’t recapture the plausible obscurity of The Blair Witch Project. But despite its conceit, Paranormal Activity makes no pretense of being unaltered, and the very presence of cuts, fades, titles, and fast motion invite the audience to wonder what person in-universe made it. The performances are enough to pull the picture from an early slump, but by the end, these questions left me cold once more.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Katie makes jewelry out of beads. Bees? Beads. She and Micah also live alone in a house with two extra bedrooms, for some reason.

How Did It Do?
Despite being the first chronological entry in a bounty of found footage horror films in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Paranormal Activity did not popularize the trend, owing to some Charlie Bartlettstyle shenanigans.

Initially unable to find a distributor for the movie– or any subsequent work– Oren Peli got a lucky break from a Weinstein Company producer named Jason Blum. A natural contrarian in the big-budget, high-risk world of Hollywood finance, Blum saw the potential of micro-budget films as a source of reliable revenue, and began shopping the film around. Thus, Blumhouse Productions was born.

After being courted for a mid-budget remake, the success of 2008’s Cloverfield, the true breakout found footage movie, convinced Paramount to pick Paranormal Activity for release in September 2009, nearly two years after its premiere, with a new (and probably inferior) ending. Whereas a delay of this type normally spells death for any feature, Paranormal Activity grossed $193.4 million against a miniscule $15,000 budget. So too did critics flock to the movie, earning it an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Obviously I wasn’t so hot about it, but it must have seemed a breath of fresh air after years of gory contrivances in films like Saw and Hostel.

Since then, Paranormal Activity has spawned five sequels. Peli has worked mostly as a producer for other low-budget horror films, and Blumhouse has come to dominate horror while occasionally dipping into prestige, giving us Get Out and Whiplash, among almost everything else.

Next Time: 30 Days of Night

The Kite Runner (2007)

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The Kite Runner
Dir. Marc ForsterPremiered at Scottsdale October 16, 2007

I don’t know how widespread this is, but in the United States, we have a scholastic tradition called summer reading, whereby schools assign books to students over the summer to be discussed and tested on at the start of the school year. Oddly, my last summer reading assignment ever was Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel The Kite Runner. I say oddly because my senior English course was entirely on British Literature, and Hosseini has no connection to the British Isles.

Most likely, the inclusion of The Kite Runner was rooted in a desire to connect our studies with current events and contemporary popular literature. Coincidentally, the year was 2007, and it wasn’t long after I finished the book when trailers for Marc Forster’s film adaptation began appearing on television– albeit rarely. By non-youth literary standards, The Kite Runner was a huge deal, but the movie came and went. Upon watching, I understood why: it’s is a perfectly faithful adaptation and a totally unimaginative film.

The story begins in 1970s Afghanistan, in the final days of the monarchy. Young Amir Qadiri (Khalid Abdalla) lives in a middle-class home in cosmopolitan Kabul with his widowed father (Homayoun Ershadi), a sometimes aloof but morally incorruptible man whose outspoken moderation puts him in conflict with religion and the Communists– the latter of whom soon seize power.

Amir and his father also live with their servant Ali and his son Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmizada). Amir is friends with Hassan, who is an outcast due to his minority Hazara background, but is frustrated that Hassan is so deferential toward him. This culminates in the aftermath of a traditional kite-flying competition in which Hassan tracks down a lost kite in an alley, only to be beaten and raped by teenage bully/Pashto supremacist Assef (Elham Essas).

Amir’s guilt over not defending his friend overpowers him, even after the Soviet invasion forces him and his father to leave for California, where he grows up, begins writing in earnest, falls in love and marries fellow refugee Soraya (Atossa Leoni), loses his father to cancer, and fails to have children. Suddenly, he receives word from his father’s dying friend Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub) that Hassan, now dead by the hand ascendant Taliban, was Amir’s bastard half-brother, and that Amir is responsible for recovering Hassan’s orphan son.

The Kite Runner in its original form was an engaging and wonderfully detailed reflection on the modern Afghani experience; it’s not one of my favorite books, but it does a great job of bringing a taste of that life to the reader. The film not so much. David Benioff’s script is perfectly fine, as are the performances. But as far as direction is concerned, it feels as if Marc Forster simply had the cast and crew read the book. The cinematography, blocking, editing, and visual effects are all off in some difficult-to-grasp fashion. The result is a perfunctory adaptation; it exists because that’s what happens to bestselling novels. Anyone who hasn’t read the book won’t be interested, and anyone who has won’t get anything new out of it.

How Did It Do?
Entering wide-release in December, The Kite Runner grossed $73.3 million against a $20 million budget– the vast majority from overseas. In its native US, it was barely advertised and opened in 19th place. Clearly aiming for awards, it received only one Oscar nomination for Alberto Iglesias’ original score, and won no other major awards.

The Kite Runner was simply outclassed, as evidenced by the heavily qualified reviews comprising much of its 66% rating on RottenTomatoes: “a respectful adaptation,” “good but not classic,” “short of greatness,” “disappointingly scripted,” etc.

Forster, perhaps the most prestigious journeyman in Hollywood, had previously directed Stay and Stranger Than Fiction to great effect (as well as more typically short-lived Oscar fare like Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland). From The Kite Runner, Forster went right on to direct the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace without a script due to the Writers’ Guild of America strike, and continued on in his randomness with Machine Gun Preacher, World War Z, All I See is You, and this year’s Christopher Robin.

Next Time: Paranormal Activity

Why Did I Get Married? (2007)

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Why Did I Get Married?
Dir. Tyler Perry
Premiered October 4, 2007

I could never forget the poster. It was raining. I was a high school senior, on my way home, taking some bus up North Lake Avenue when I saw the poster for Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? on the Villa Street bus stop. Tyler Perry had only been directing for two years, but he’d already developed a reputation among my younger black neighbors and many critics as a didactic, moralizing closet-case exploiting the scarcity of African-American-centric films to make shitty movies. But I wasn’t black, and hadn’t seen any of his films, so I didn’t think it was my place to comment on them.

It was natural for me to give the poster a look: it was new, and the title was a question. But then I began to look closer, and saw the fine print…

Because no one inspires me more.
…Because we complete each other’s sentences.
…Because two are stronger than one.
…Because every moment we share is better than the last.

“Oh,” I thought. “That’s why you got married.”

I immediately got the hate. Clearly this wasn’t a man to let not seeing the movie get in the way of telling you the moral. And now, after watching it…

College professor Patricia Agnew (Janet Jackson) has recently published the book Why Did I Get Married?, a semi-autobiographical advice book detailing her and her friends’ marriages. Just as the book is published, Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) head off to an annual week-long retreat with said friends. They include:

  • Pediatrician Terry and lawyer Dianne (Tyler Perry and Sharon Leal), who’ve grown apart following Dianne’s promotion and Terry’s desire to have a second child.

  • Former football player Marcus and Salon owner Angela (Michael J. White and Tasha Smith), the latter of whom is an abusive alcoholic who resents that her husband has children from a previous relationship and that he works for her (thus making less money than her). They are both cheating on each other.

  • Mike and Sheila (Richard T. Jones and Jill Scott). Mike is basically the worst person on Earth and has brought his mistress Trina (Denise Boutte) on the retreat, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense. And of course since this is a Tyler Perry movie, the worst man of the bunch is also the one with the darkest complexion.

At the retreat, this time in the Rocky Mountains, secrets are laid bare, two murders are attempted, and Sheila is driven into the arms of hunky local Sheriff’s deputy Troy (Lamman Rucker). When they return home, each couple needs to face some hard truths about their marriages, but Patricia comes to the rescue when she gives them a system for assessing the positive aspects of their relationships, and they all live happily ever after. It’s not a spoiler, because the poster already tells you how it ends.

For such a low-concept film, Why Did I Get Married? is riddled with plot holes. In fact, they drive the story. The biggest, of course, is Mike bringing his mistress and his wife to a couples’ retreat, but there are many more; too many to go into here. In addition, the film is full of ancillary shittiness. The first act of the film might as well be called “As You Know,” since it consists mostly of characters telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the audience; Lindsay Ellis in fact singled this film out as a pristine example of how not to write exposition. In an early scene, a drunken Angela gets into a fight with a stereotypically fuh-laming gay couple riding a train with a chihuahua named Fifi who are also blatant racists, and while we are clearly meant to hate them, we are also supposed to be on their side in the context of the scene. The movie even features a Dr. Evil reference, which was already played out at the beginning of the decade.

And to address the elephant in the room, yes, after watching this film, I am totally convinced that Perry is gay. Not only is the movie’s male gaze concerned with beefcake and only beefcake, the script features men discussing their sex lives in detail in a manner I’ve told is more typical of women in our society. I’m a straight man of a much younger generation raised in a very socially liberal religious tradition and environment, so if I found that unrealistic, it can’t be any less strange for these characters. Perry’s startling ignorance of heterosexuality combined with the casual homophobia he shows off in this film is deeply off-putting. And of course the whole is sprinkled throughout with shallow discussions about Jesus.

Altogether, Why Did I Get Married? is the most drab, boring, stagey movie I’ve seen thus far, full of awful weirdness, unexamined homoeroticism, and some bizarre statements about AIDS, all in service with a preachy, questionable message that makes the sexual politics of Knocked Up look frighteningly progressive.

In other words, a Tyler Perry movie.

I get it now.

Signs This Was Made in 2007

  • Another BlackBerry product placement!

  • Sheila gets lost because she can’t read a map, demonstrating that GPS hasn’t totally taken over yet.

  • This movie contains what might be the last positive reference to Dr. Phil McGraw in popular culture. In early 2008, the dubious television psychologist got in legal and ethical hot water for attempting to stage an unsolicited “intervention” for pop star Britney Spears while she sought mental health treatment, and in so doing lost any pretense of legitimacy as a mental health professional.

Additional Notes
The tension between Mike and Sheila is first made clear when she is asked to buy a second airline ticket to Colorado because she is too fat. This is a problem because (1) the use of this airline policy was played out even then, (2) they’re telling her this on the plane, and (3) she’s Hollywood fat, and doesn’t need an extra seat anymore than you or I do (really we all do, but that’s a separate issue).

How Did It Do?
Critics were more divided than one might expect, earning the film a 45% rating on RT, and that may be owed to how much worse they considered Perry’s other films to have been. This was Perry’s fourth feature, and his first attempt at straight drama, leading Bill Gibron of Filmcritic.com to suggest that its lack of similarity to Perry’s other movies would keep viewers away.

This turned out not to be the case. Why Did I Get Married? grossed $55.8 million worldwide against an undisclosed but unquestionably economical budget– another key to Perry’s success– a higher yield than two of his previous films, and apparently enough to warrant a sequel: Why Did I Get Married Too? made barely more money and less per-theater against a larger budget.

Next Time: The Kite Runner

There Will Be Blood (2007)

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There Will Be Blood
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Premiered at Fantastic Fest September 27, 2007

In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank suggests that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was written long before it was published, as not only does it take place in a world that more closely resembles the 1930s than the 1950s, it also borrows its style from terrible left-wing propaganda novels of that time. Frank doesn’t mention any such books by name, but we may reasonably include Upton Sinclair’s awkward fictionalized socialist manifesto Oil!

Apparently, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson read Oil! and decided it would work better if he ditched the politics, used the first three chapters as only the barest inspiration, and made a brutal psychodrama epic with a three-hour run-time but minimal dialogue, mostly performed by a notoriously hammy method actor doing an over-the-top American accent, with a title lifted from a line from the trailer for Saw II.

Somehow that ended up being the best film of 2007.

Ever interested in the history of his native Southern California, There Will Be Blood, like its remote source material Oil!, is inspired at least in part on the life of Edward Doheny, father of the region’s once-unfathomable oil boom whose remnants can still be seen around Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Bakersfield. At the turn of the 20th century, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lonely, fiercely determined oil prospector whose miserable work gradually pays off. He finds unlikely fortune when he adopts H.W. (Dillon Freasier),the son of one of his workers killed in an accident, and the boy gives Plainview a family-friendly image in contrast to the faceless corporate monopolies he must compete with.

Fortune strikes again years later when young drifter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) tells Plainview of a vast and heretofore uncharted oil field under his piss-poor family ranch in Little Boston, near Bakersfield. Traveling there under the guise of purchasing the land as a hunting ground, Plainview is stopped short by Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Paul Dano), who demands $10,000 for the land to fund his fledgling Evangelical movement.

From there, a surprising amount of stuff happens. H.W. is deafened by an explosion and sent away, a mysterious stranger arrives claiming to be Daniel’s half-brother (Kevin J. O’Connor), and Daniel surveys and builds a hundred-mile pipeline to the ocean to avoid the usurious prices of the Standard Oil-owned Southern Pacific Railroad as his animosity with the equally but differently megalomaniacal Eli reaches a fever pitch.

There Will Be Blood is unconventional as populist entertainment, but it’s not for nothing that it was as big a hit as it was. It’s a true cinematic experience; a deliberate, ominous, yet captivating Herzogian spectacle of man and nature; as beautiful in its depiction of disaster as it is of the unspoiled landscapes of rural California (though mostly filmed in Texas). Despite what I imagine to be an even shorter script than No Country for Old Men, it is eminently quotable as well, funny in parts, even as it borrows much of its dialogue from real-world speeches, writings, and scandalous depositions. But, more than anything, you cannot take your eyes away.

Additional Notes
There Will Be Blood has the finest original score of the year, a triumph by Jonny Greenwood. Unfortunately, the Academy disqualified it from consideration because they used Brahms as well. Fuck them.

Minnie (as well as I during my first viewing) thought Paul and Eli might have been the same person. Was the movie trying to fake us out?

How Did It Do?
There Will Be Blood grossed $76.2 million against a $25 million budget. Critics gave it not only a 91% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but the #1 spot on no fewer than twenty published US critics’ year-end top ten lists, and awards for Best Picture from the Los Angeles and National Film Critics’ Associations.

When Oscar came calling, There Will Be Blood won for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit), and was nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Picture. The race for Best Picture was widely believed to be between There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. No Country won, but today’s film seemed to skew a bit younger, as it is generally regarded as not only the better film, but the best film of the best year in the history of film. In spite of Juno’s best efforts, Blood turned out to be one of the most quotable pictures of the season, with “I drink your milkshake” elevated to genuine meme status while the movie was still in theaters, and ten years on, Daniel Plainview has remained Day-Lewis’ most iconic performance.

So while my heart (and the hearts of many others in retrospect) may belong to Zodiac, There Will Be Blood has won its chapter in the history of film. Of all the films I’ve reviewed for this project, it is the last bona fide classic that will be covered. But fall has barely begun, and things will remain…interesting.

Next Time: Why Did I Get Married?