Sunshine (2007)

2007-sunshine-4

Sunshine
Dir. Danny Boyle
Premiered at Bochum March 23, 2007

I don’t remember Sunshine coming out in theaters. I do remember seeing the trailer at the beginning of every Netflix DVD in 2007…and skipping over it. Until recently, when it became a favorable point of comparison with this year’s stillborn space-thriller Life, the only time I’d heard someone talk about it was to say that it was just like an episode of Doctor Who that came out that same summer. I know which episode he was talking about, and it isn’t.

For some reason, the world just kinda missed Danny Boyle’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed 28 Days Later, and since I’ve made a point of seeing every wide-release film from a name director, I gave it a shot, and am quite glad of it.

In the year 2057, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is a physicist onboard the Icarus II. Its mission: to reignite a prematurely dying Sun that has plunged the Earth into a severe ice age by detonating a massive, untested nuclear weapon. The ship’s increasing proximity to the Sun has begun to have a deleterious effect on the crew, hard-nosed engineer (Chris Evans) and the ship’s doctor (Cliff Curtis) who’s becoming gradually more obsessed with the star.

Suddenly, the Icarus II comes across its long-lost predecessor, the Icarus I. Accidents mount in the crew’s attempt to reach their predecessors, difficult decisions are made, and once they arrive, what first appears to be a miraculous discovery– something– may cost the crew their mission, their lives, and the survival of all life on Earth.

In an era that saw science fiction lose relevance in favor of classical fantasy, Sunshine is an utterly engrossing throwback to the darker, spiritually and environmentally themed sci-fi of the 1970s, and in turn feels much like a precursor to cult films like Moon and Beyond the Black Rainbow. What could have been a bloated ensemble piece devotes its 111-minute running time to being one of the darkest– and best– thrillers of 2007 so far, with an overall effect that can only be described as cosmically invigorating.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
While the technology of Sunshine may be futuristic, the aesthetic is emphatically reminiscent of the 2000s, which I rather like. No point in distracting us with pointless knicknacks.

Additional Notes
The film has an unexpected connection with my favorite author: Boyle got a feel for visualizing the godlike power of the Sun by reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, at the time his most popular book.

How Did It Do?
Sunshine was originally scheduled to debut in October 2006, but was postponed, likely due to delays in post-production, and went wide in July 2007 after premiering at the Bochum Fantasy Festival. I’ve already seen over a hundred movies for this project, so if it had come out the previous year, I likely would never have seen it. That’s part of what makes 2007 such a great year– it introduces you to some great stuff you wouldn’t have otherwise sought out.

However, Sunshine would have been a better fit for the Halloween season– July 2007 was overcrowded with bigger, more anticipated franchise flicks, and it only made grossed $32 million against a $40 million budget– only $3.7 million of that from the United States, where it was anticipated to make the bulk of its revenue.

However, critics were mostly positive, with a 76% on RottenTomatoes. Some found it boring. A lot of hard sci-fi snobs– I like to imagine Martin Starr’s character in Party Down among them took issue with the movie becoming a horror flick halfway through, but that’s Danny Boyle for you. A lot of critics classified it as a spiritual sequel to 28 Days Later, which had the same writer, director, and star, right as an actual sequel came out involving none of them.

Sunshine also has a personal legacy for me. A year after first watching it, my girlfriend Minnie, who was a student in Leonard Maltin’s film industry classes at USC, invited me to a pre-screening of this year’s Life. It was shit. The characterization was nonexistent, the monster design unfocused and ugly, everyone goes against their established characters to act as stupid as possible for the sake of plot. We had hauled ass to get there on time, yet watching this third-hand Alien wannabe, all I could think was “Minnie and I should have just watched Sunshine.” That’s how good this movie is. Make sure to turn off the motion smoothing on your TV, and check it out now.

Next Time: Grindhouse

Advertisements

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

meet_the_robinsons.jpg

Meet the Robinsons
Dir. Steve Anderson
46th entry in the Disney Animated Canon

The 2000s were not a good decade for Disney. How far we’ve come.

After opening the Disney Vault and raking in the cash, CEO/chairman/used car salesman Michael Eisner undid all the good of the Disney Renaissance, firing creative professionals left and right, only for them to join the competition. Roseanne Barr played a talking cow, killing traditional animation as a populist medium, followed by the lowest-rated film in the animated canon.

After a decade of fighting, Eisner was forced out, and spent the bulk of 2007 railing against unions. Walt Disney Animation Studios– which Eisner had amazingly tried to shut down in 1987– had to pick up the pieces. There was a long way to go before the Second Renaissance we find ourselves in now, but the first step back towards respectability was this film, Meet the Robinsons.

Lewis (Jordan Fry) is a young orphan tinkerer who dreams of being adopted and getting rich off his fanciful inventions. On the day of the science fair, he encounters two people who appear to come from the future: a mysterious villain in a sentient bowler hat (director Steve Anderson), and teenager Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who brings Lewis to the future to meet his wacky extended family and stop Bowler Hat Guy from stealing Lewis’ technology and ruining the world to come.

First, the downsides. The setup for this film is pretty standard; the family is a little too wacky and the first half of the second act is a little too scattered. There’s a stupid “liar revealed” moment to separate the main characters in order to build a climax, and there’s twist that you can see coming a mile away– I mean, it’s a time travel movie; your audience is going to connect the dots.

On the other hand, this movie makes you feel good. Yeah, the twist is obvious, but it’s still fun, and you really feel the emotion. The future world and characters are cute when the film steps back and lets you breathe, and there are some good laughs in there. Moreover, it’s not just a movie about the value of having the courage to keep working towards a better future. It’s also very explicitly a mission statement for the company that made it at the time it needed it most. Meet the Robinsons will likely continue to be a minor entry in the Disney Animated Canon, but it’s a revealing one, and it’s very pleasing that it happened in such an inspiring year for cinema.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The overabundance of twee, mid-tempo easy listening music, including a song that prominently features the phrase “Let It Go.”

Additional Notes
Another weird moment of prescience: a large part of this film revolves around a bitter manchild being manipulated by a race of chauvinistic hats. There is no part of that that isn’t fucking weird. (Ed. Note: a first draft of this review was written in early 2016, so apologies if that no longer makes sense)

Hollywood still doesn’t know what school science projects are.

How Did It Do?
As the only production company with a distinct brand (aside from Dreamworks, which was still its adolescent “fuck you Disney” phase), Walt Disney Animation Studios had a unique challenge to regain the public trust as a reliable source of quality entertainment. However, it also had a unique opportunity in that achieving this only required, at minimum, that Meet the Robinsons be better-received than the disastrous Home on the Range or Chicken Little– i.e. make its money back and not be hated by the majority of critics.

It only half-succeeded. Meet the Robinsons made just $169.3 million against a rumored $198.2 million budget. But, receiving a 66% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, the highest since 2002’s Treasure Planet, critical reception was encouraging for future projects.

With Eisner’s mismanagement out of the picture and former Pixar creative John Lasseter in the newly-created position of “Chief Creative Officer,” WDAS was unsure where to go from there, and decided experimenting. Three projects were in the works: a light CG “pets in peril” flick, a self-conscious throwback to traditionally animated bluechip fairy tale adaptations, and a slightly more off-brand fairy tale rendered in 3D but with the recognizable 2D character designs and landscapes. But that’s another story.

Next Time: Sunshine

Reign Over Me (2007)

mpareignovermeb

Reign Over Me
Dir. Mike Binder
Premiered March 23, 2007

When I set out to do this series, I wanted to review Reign Over Me because, despite tons of mentions of it as an example of Adam Sandler doing a “good movie,” I seemed to recall that it wasn’t well-received. But, with a 64% fresh rating from RottenTomatoes, maybe it was just me. Maybe I saw clips of Sandler’s acting, which may, in short bursts, have come off as “going full retard.” And while there had been previous films involving the September 11 attacks, this was the first time that the attacks served as a plot point for an original story, which may have seemed distasteful at the time (says the man now trying to make his own 9/11 movie). I may have misjudged it.

One day, dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) spots his old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), who lost his wife and daughters on one of the the planes that hit the World Trade Center. Fineman is drawn to Johnson as someone who didn’t know his family, and brings him into his lonely, repressed life of classic rock, video games, and endlessly remodeling his kitchen. Eventually, Johnson tries to bring Fineman out more, to deal with his grief in a healthy manner, with mixed results.

While far from perfect, Reign Over Me provides one the best performances of Adam Sandler’s career, certainly the only one I know of in which he does not play some variation on his established persona, and it is heartbreaking. This is the first film I’ve ever seen that explicitly deals with post-traumatic stress disorder in a non-military context, and while the film doesn’t always provide the right tone, Charlie’s crisis is never treated as a source of innocent wisdom or a window into the human spirit or any other Hollywood cliché, but as a miserable illness from which a decent person is clearly suffering, and it isn’t all fixed at the end, which is painful, but refreshingly honest, and the film is consistently engrossing. Altogether, this film a pleasant surprise.

Additional Thoughts
One thing that can ruin an otherwise good movie is a bad score (see Absence of Malice), and Reign Over Me almost shoots itself in the foot with the frequent use of what I can only describe as “quirky strings.”

How Did It Do?
Reign Over Me was the first feature film to deal directly with the psychological impact of the 9/11 attacks, just a year after Hollywood had dipped its toes into (overall respectful) portrayals of that day’s actual events. It came at just the right time, but wasn’t big or important enough to score big with critics or audiences. In addition to the okay 64% rating on RottenTomatoes, it only grossed $22.2 million, nowhere near enough to cover the combination of its $20 million budget and associated marketing. Like Breach, Reign Over Me gives the distinct impression that it was made to be an awards contender but that distributer Columbia Pictures disagreed.

Next Time: Meet the Robinsons

Talk to Me (2007)

talk_to_me.jpg

Talk to Me
Dir. Kasi Lemmons
Premiered at ShoWest March 12, 2007

Few professions in the entertainment business are as open to ridicule by default as radio DJs, a position that screams “small name, big ego.” Of course, there are exceptions, and Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me provides a unique if uneven profile in one of them.

In 1966, radio producer Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes a perfunctory visit to his older brother (Mike Epps) in a Virginia prison where he’s unexpectedly approached by the prison DJ, a con by the name Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) hoping for a job when his sentence ends. For Greene, being behind the microphone is a refuge, the only thing he knows to do with his life that doesn’t open a door back to his old life, so when he’s let out early for preventing a potentially deadly standoff, Hughes is shocked to discover Greene lobbying for a position at his also-ran station in Washington, D.C.

Talk to Me is at its absolute best when it focuses on the chemistry between Ejiofor and Cheadle. Although Hughes and Greene both come from the same rough neighborhood, they have taken different paths out, and Hughes resents Greene’s representation of everything he’s spent his life trying to get away from. But he also deeply envies the freedom Greene feels to say things that would get Hughes in trouble with his crusty old boss (Martin Sheen). So against all odds, Hughes puts Greene on the air, making him an overnight sensation for his unflappable opinions and quick wit. Rising to the occasion after the assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent riots in his beloved D.C., Petey becomes an even bigger hit with the local populace than before.

Talk to Me is a great first two acts: quick, funny, energizing, and with great character work. Don Cheadle throws himself into Greene, continuing his hot streak from Hotel Rwanda three years earlier, and both Ejiofor and Taraji P. Henson (playing Greene’s long-term girlfriend) go along so gracefully that they make it look easy.

The performances alone help lift a movie out of the mediocrity that would otherwise be occasioned by its third act. Upon the film’s release, the most adamant criticism came directly from Greene’s family, who objected strongly to several instances of creative license that served to elevate the late host’s prominence at the time. Most glaringly is the film’s climax, which sees Greene invited as a guest on The Tonight Show, opening a rift between himself and Hughes that leads into a denouement that feels rushed and awkward. Screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa had previously and would continue to struggle with sticking a film’s landing, but in this instance, it’s very clear that a ton of stuff was cut out toward the end. It’s a damn shame, but it really is rescued by performances that keep Talk to Me worthy of recommendation.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The hair. Specifically, the white radio executives’ hair at the beginning: buzz cuts and goatees abound that scream “90s dad” at the earliest, and Sheen looks just like President Bartlett.

How Did It Do?
Talk to Me went into wide release in July, which is such odd timing that I have no idea what to make of it. Critics were overwhelmingly positive, earning it an 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but the July release guaranteed that it would flop, grossing just $4.8 million worldwide against an undisclosed but certainly much larger budget. Kasi Lemmons followed the film up in 2013 with a poorly-received adaptation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity.

Next Time: Reign Over Me

Knocked Up (2007)

knocked_up

Knocked Up
Dir. Judd Apatow
Premiered at SXSW March 12, 2007

I don’t know what it was like for the rest of you, but for me, Knocked Up came out of nowhere. Despite living in Southern California, where the film industry spends disproportionate sums on local advertising, I never saw a single trailer, TV spot, or poster for the film. I just woke up one day and there on the cover of Time Magazine was screenwriter/star Seth Rogen, America’s unlikely sweetheart.

Now, let me say this: I like Seth Rogen. He has a very warm presence and a gift for comedic timing, and those things both come out in this film. He’s also an incredibly gifted writer, having begun screenwriting at 14 and earning a plum sitcom writing job straight out of high school. So I’m glad he broke out. I’m just a little confused as to how his big break was this movie.

Rogen stars as Ben Stone, a perpetually broke pothead living with his friends as they try to create a website that documents nude scenes in films, not realizing that such services already exist. Ben has an unlikely one-night stand with the rich, successful, aggressively gentile Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl), resulting in an unplanned pregnancy that causes the two to get back in touch and reconcile their very different lives. In the process, Ben befriends Allison’s brother-in-law (Paul Rudd), who begins to question his own relationship with Allison’s sister (Leslie Mann).

Before I say anything else: this film has some very good jokes. But the film succeeds only as a vehicle for those jokes, surprisingly few and far between as they may be; not so much as a movie.

A few critics more inclined toward demagoguery have decried the film’s message as little more than antiquated, borderline fascist propaganda, and while I see where they’re coming from, anyone can see that those problems are merely side-effects of poor execution. First, Allison briefly discusses abortion with her mother, but decides to keep the baby. This I can easily forgive, as without the pregnancy, there’s no movie. Second, the film ends with Ben and Allison staying together, implying that they’ll eventually get married. The idea being that Judd Apatow is telling unhappy couples to “do it for the kids.”

But that’s the problem. The movie wants us to root for them to stay together, but these people should not be together. At her worst, Allison is bitter and contemptuous toward Ben and ultimately just learns to tolerate him for the sake of their child. Ben eventually grows up and gets a job (which I imagine is really easy fresh out of college with zero experience), but that doesn’t make him any more of a match for her. To her credit, Heigl actually complained about her character’s lack of humor when the film came out, but she immediately undercut her complaint by going on to perform near-identical and often more shrewish roles in countless romantic “comedies.”

Speaking of romantic comedies, Knocked Up has no style. Much if not most of the film looks as glossy and anonymous as, say, The Other Woman or Think Like a Man. Director Judd Apatow’s continuing inability to portray people who aren’t wealthy or don’t work in the entertainment industry only seems to be getting worse with time, and it started here. And in a long tradition of learning all the wrong lessons, the film’s unusual running time somehow convinced Hollywood that movies are funnier when they’re an hour too long. While Knocked Up still has some very funny jokes and brought more good into the world than bad ultimately, it is most certainly less than the sum of its parts, and speaking as an adult, quite depressing.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Ryan Seacrest dreams of an exit strategy from Iraq. Pete wants to watch Taxicab Confessions and got Hideki Matsui on his fantasy baseball roster. Lily Allen’s “Smile” makes its obligatory appearance. There’s a product placement for a Moto Razr. Allison’s first on-air interview is with Matthew Fox from Lost. Three separate references to the then-in-theaters Spider-Man 3. Jonah and Martin re-enact Murderball with hospital wheelchairs. Ben despises Steely Dan.

Additional Notes

  • The economics of Knocked Up are a common complaint for Apatow films and rom-coms generally, but it’s even weirder here: Pete (Paul Rudd) can singlehandedly support a family of four in a giant house in Brentwood while working in the moribund music industry, yet Allison has a stable full-time job and still lives in his guesthouse.

  • Since we’re on the subject of Mr. Apatow, I want to clarify that I don’t dislike him. I’ve worked on one of his shows, and I think he’s a great businessman with a real eye for great ideas and talented people, but since this film, whenever he’s in the director’s chair, it seems like he can’t get outside his own head.

  • Debbie (Leslie Mann) is an anti-vaxxer, and the film treats it as just another example of her being an overprotective busybody, instead of, you know, fucking dangerous. It’s a minor line, but it completely undercuts the character’s credibility. Less than a year after this film came out, there was a huge mumps outbreak in a wealthy suburb of San Diego, and everyone was shocked that rich kids would get sick, and that’s when the whole anti-vaccine movement was essentially outed in America. Since then, the vaccination rate in Los Angeles’ affluent western suburbs, where this film takes place, have a lower child vaccination rate than South Sudan, where access to medical care is limited by a civil war. I don’t think Apatow would’ve taken the same approach if the character was, say, a creationist.

  • At one point, there’s an earthquake, and Ben’s housemates and neighbors line up on the street afterward while police drive by for inspection. Having lived my entire life in California, I’m befuddled. The point of going outside during an earthquake is to get away from things falling on you. There’s no post-mortem muster involved.

  • Another fucking contrived epidural irony. That was played out when they did it on Mad About You.

  • Something I never noticed before: multiple visual references to Neil Young’s Landing on Water. If you can figure out why, be my guest.

  • Ben gets an apartment in East LA and they get there by driving west from Santa Monica because sunsets are pretty.

  • Easily, easily the only part of this film that truly holds up is the “chair scene” from Ben and Pete’s Vegas digression:

How Did It Do?
Comedy can’t really be engineered; things just kinda have to go right. But the desire to find a formula that will “make something funny” will never go away, and the…let’s call them systemic novelties…in Knocked Up gave Hollywood– or infected it with– the idea that the key to a successful comedy is to have a much longer running time and way more improvisation. This is how we got, among many, many other things, the Ghostbusters remake.

Sure, Knocked Up was a smash hit, grossing $219.1 million against a $30 million budget, it earned an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a spot in way too many Top Ten lists, legitimized Seth Rogen as a screenwriter and comedic star outside the normal “funny fat guy” mold, and allowed Director Judd Apatow to become a true impresario of comedy, shaping tastes and making stars up to the very present– but as the hype has worn off, its ultimate legacy will be teaching filmmakers the wrong lessons, encouraging screenwriters and directors to treat all comedy like the very particular voices of a talented few.

But Knocked Up is still only one movie. Don’t count Apatow– or especially Rogen– out for 2007.

Next Time: Talk to Me

The Lookout (2007)

Layout 1

The Lookout
Dir. Scott Frank
Premiered at SXSW March 9, 2007

In the spirit of this film, I’m going to break from the normal format today: to quote Jeff Daniels’ character, let’s start at the end and move back from there.

How Did It Do?
I had no idea The Lookout existed before beginning this project. The first time I attempted recapping 2007 in film on a private forum, I made only a passing note of it, to mention– quite dismissively– that its main character was named Chris Pratt; this being a time when the real Chris Pratt was only familiar to a small but appreciative audience as the sensitive jock from an also-ran teen drama called Everwood, and thus making this movie seem like a joke in retrospect.

Mind you, the movie did nothing in terms of business: it grossed $5.4 million against a $16 million budget, and despite having a very wide release was virtually unadvertised. However, it was a critical darling: Leonard Maltin called it the best movie of 2007 up to that point, and Richard Roeper put it in his year-end top ten on a show that I remember watching.

Critics begged people to see it before it disappeared into the dustbin of film history. The greatest tragedy about 2007 is that there were so many great movies that some were inevitably crowded out, robbed of the chance either to be celebrated in the moment or resurrected as cult classics. The Lookout is only the first example of that which I have covered so far.

~~~

Often when we think of great movies, we think of stuff that grabs you from the first scene and carries you off in a thrilling passion of image and sound. The Lookout instead tricks you into thinking it’s a smaller movie, then gradually turns up the heat until, at the very end, you realize your heart’s racing.

At the end of high school, Kansas hockey prodigy Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) causes a car accident that kills two of his friends and leaves him with permanent brain damage. Bereft of the ability to reason, Chris is absent-minded, impulsive, and naïve; four years on, he can only find work as the janitor at a rural bank, and is unable to socialize with anyone but his blind, sarcastic, and fiercely protective roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels).

But that changes very suddenly when Chris is approached by two of his former classmates: sleazy Gary (Matthew Goode) and fiery seductress Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher)– don’t laugh, it’s just her “stage name.”

Eventually, Gary tells Chris what’s really going on: the whole gang is planning to rob the bank where he works, using him as their lookout– or so they say, because Chris may be too addled to realize their true intentions with him, but the movie is not.

Before long, The Lookout has steadily built up into a gorgeous, character-driven triumph. Gordon-Levitt, who had broken out two years earlier with the starring role in Rian Johnson’s Brick, feels totally at home as a laid-back athlete whose natural charms are endlessly hampered by his injury; it’s a subtle performance, but a revelation to those already familiar with his usual screen persona. Jeff Daniels equally knocks it out of the park, imbuing Lewis with a wryness and warmth that Chris by his very nature can’t provide. Isla Fisher radiates a cozy sort of sexuality rarely seen in movies at all, and Matthew Goode is cast just about as perfectly as he ever could be.

Having long been a giant of screenwriting, The Lookout was Scott Frank’s first outing as a director, a job he has only returned to once for yet another eerie, underrated character-driven caper, 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones. If finding and watching this movie gets him back behind the camera, do yourself a favor and don’t let The Lookout stay forgotten.

Next Time: Knocked Up

I Think I Love My Wife (2007)

 

i_think_i_love_my_wife

I Think I Love My Wife
Dir. Chris Rock
Premiered March 16, 2007

I think I like Chris Rock. I used to listen to his standup and watch Everybody Hates Chris from time to time (I was a teenage boy after all), and although he’s gotten more hit and miss with age, he’s always been very good at getting to the bottom of things; trying to make sense of how people perceive and react to different situations. You can see it when he talks about the increasing loneliness he feels as a black baseball fan, or when he compares the allegations against Bill Cosby to the death of Robin Williams in how both affected him as a comedian.

But he’s never had much luck in film. Maybe it’s the fact that he just missed the standup boom of the 1980s, when comedians were briefly the biggest superstars on the planet, but until Top Five, which he also directed, every leading role he’s taken on has been rote and ill-advised, despite the fact that he co-wrote most of the screenplays with longtime pal and collaborator Louis CK.

Like their earlier film Down to Earth, I Think I Love My Wife saw Rock and CK attempt to remake a classic film from the 1970s. Love in the Afternoon was the sixth and final of French Filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” and while not a great film, it makes insightful points about romance and fidelity that most other films rarely acknowledge– including, bizarrely, this one.

In the original film, Bernard Verley plays Frederic, a lawyer who lives in the suburbs but prefers to spend as much time in Paris as he can. Particularly, he enjoys spending time in the company of strangers– young women mostly– to stave off the creeping loneliness of middle age. Suddenly, he runs into Chloe (Zouzou), the girlfriend of an old friend who’s found herself with no direction in life, and the two strike up a strictly platonic friendship. Eventually, though, Chloe’s chaotic life becomes too uncomfortable for Frederic to handle, and retreats from the opportunity to have an affair with her, realizing that the loneliness of wild city living is ultimately emptier than the loneliness of settling down. It’s not a comedy.

The main points of Love in the Afternoon is that one need not have to be unhappy in a relationship to be attracted to others. This is true, but little remarked upon in popular culture, and too unconventional for I Think I Love My Wife, which finds Rock’s Richard Cooper in a rut in his marriage, causing him to seek out the attention of Chloe analogue Nikki (Kerry Washington). Whereas Chloe was around the same age as Frederic and it really seemed like the two of them would form an unlikely friendship, the age gap between Richard and Nikki is too big to pull it off, while Nikki is consistently portrayed as a wanton temptress in contrast to the unstable but mostly boundary-respecting Chloe.

Maybe it’s a translation issue. New York City isn’t Paris, and 2007 isn’t 1972. I initially thought Love in the Afternoon was visually dull, but at least it’s full of beautiful scenery, clothes, and people, whereas I Think I Love My Wife is shot in a bland, anonymous style familiar to most romantic comedies post-1990, and has the misfortune of taking place in an exceptionally unflattering time period. Where this film diverges from the original, there are some laughs. Rock takes Love in the Afternoon’s fairly creepy fantasy sequence early in the film an mines it for straight-up comedy, and the film ends with a hilarious and original mock R&B duet, but both of these things would be more at home on their own than here. I don’t know what inspired Rock to write and direct this film, but I’m glad he’s taken a more confident direction with stuff like Good Hair and Top Five. I do like Chris Rock, but this movie is pointless.

Additional Thoughts

  • I watched this with Minnie, who didn’t see Love in the Afternoon. She thought it was pointless and frantic, and recycled a ton of played-out jokes from awkwardness buying condoms to the general presentation of marriage as a confrontational battlefield. I concur.

  • Speaking of frantic, this film is only one minute longer than the original, but packs in a shit-ton of random, pointless shit as well, mainly by speeding up the measured tone of the original with constant dialogue and needless voice-over. Yes, Love in the Afternoon had voiceover, but it was there to explain things we weren’t able to see with our own eyes.

  • Omar and Bunk are both briefly in this.

How Did It Do?
Grossing just $13.2 million against an $11 million budget, I Think I Love My Wife crashed and burned. Zack Snyder’s 300, which had gone wide a week earlier after a festival release at the end of the previous year, kept all of March 16’s releases out of the top spot; I Think I Love My Wife wasn’t even the top new release. Unfortunately, it did outperform Zodiac for the time being.

Chris Rock got out of it okay, though, and eventually made a good movie.

Next Time: The Lookout

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

2007-king_of_kong-1.jpg

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Dir. Seth Gordon
Premiered at Aspen March 2, 2007

The 2000s weren’t just a golden age of documentary for the likes of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. The sudden box office success of the genre also gave rise to a whole new wave of populist documentaries that were downright fun. Forget the Civil War, or global warming, or slave trafficking in Saipan, because as it turned out, there was no shame in showing the world a good time. Such is the case with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

As soon as the first video games arrived in the 1970s, a new subculture began to develop as people of all ages and backgrounds (albeit mostly Americans and mostly men) began to make their mark on the joystick. Classic gaming became a sport, with all the logistics, all the tedious behind-the-scenes business, and all the personalities that a great game brings.

Perhaps the biggest personality of all is Billy Mitchell, who set the world’s highest score on Donkey Kong, the hardest of all first-generation arcade games. As the film begins, Mitchell’s 1982 record still stands, and though he has rarely played in public since, Mitchell has used his niche fame to turn himself into a semi-mythical figure, a self-conscious embodiment of an increasingly cutthroat American dream. Now, however, his record is in danger. Steve Wiebe, a multitalented science teacher, appears to have beaten the decades-old record, setting off a race to the top that brings classic gaming into the spotlight like never before

What stands out most in The King of Kong is the variety of real-life characters that these games attract. On first glance, most are exactly the type of pasty, pudgy nerds depicted in old movies, but stark contrasts begin to emerge between them; spiritually-minded self-appointed official Walter Day; the Bond Villain-esque Mitchell; the plainspoken underdog Steve, even the bitterly jealous, aggressively creepy Roy Shildt, who would try anything to take Mitchell down a peg. But bringing them all together is the love of the game, the thrill of competition, and the constant need to remind themselves that games are supposed to be fun.

How Did It Do?
As documentaries in the 2000s went, The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters was one of the more heavily advertised. Even now, documentary trailers mostly only show up in front of other documentaries, or more generally in the kinds of theaters that show a lot of documentaries, but Picturehouse took out ads on social media, which was a very new idea. The only other movie I remember advertising on MySpace that year was Superbad, which worked out really well, but The King of Kong actually got there first, and I’ll get into this more with Sicko, but this was a time when documentaries were really starting to become commercially viable in Hollywood.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters had a really good per-theater average– around $10,000– but it never went that wide, so it just made $678,000, but I have to imagine it did really well in home video, where documentaries tend to overperform, because Steve Wiebe immediately started acting– like, he has a regular career doing character roles in movies and TV shows– and that generally doesn’t happen when you’re in an unsuccessful picture.

Next Time: I Think I Love My Wife

Death at a Funeral (2007)

death_at_a_funeral

Death at a Funeral
Dir. Frank Oz
Premiered at Aspen March 2, 2007

If there has been anything to learn from this project, it is that the late 2000s represented the final years of a certain kind of cinematic snobbery, wherein genre and subject matter determined quality as much as content and production value, if not moreso.

When Death at a Funeral debuted in 2007, it flew somewhat under the radar. But when career troll Neil LaBute directed an Americanized remake in 2010, many critics took the opportunity to voice their distaste with the original. By its nature, Death at a Funeral was a divisive film for the critical elite. On the one hand, it was British. On the other hand, it presented a side of British comedy that was, in the naïve Anglophilic mind, distressingly unsophisticated: a silly, light, unselfconscious farce poking fun at English repression.

Daniel (Matthew McFayden) is an insecure aspiring writer hoping to move out of his parents’ house when his father dies, bringing his emotionally distant but enormously successful author brother Robert (Rupert Graves) back into the fold. The ensuing funeral brings the entire family together, including but not limited to terminal neurotic Howard (Andy Nyman) and their foul-mouthed elderly uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan); and drug-dealing cousin Troy (Kris Marshall), who accidentally doses sister Martha’s (Daisy Donovan) fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk) with a custom mixture of LSD and Ketamine on the ride over.

But the funeral is also attended by a mysterious American visitor (Peter Dinklage), who blackmails Daniel and Robert into giving him some of their lest father’s money, lest he reveal that he and the deceased were in fact lovers.

Hilarity naturally ensues, and I mean hilarity. Between Simon’s manic drug trip, Daniel and Robert’s increasing desperation, and the mad rush of people trying and ultimately failing to pretend that nothing’s the matter, Death at a Funeral presents a classic farce with a clockwork script and wonderful performances by all involved. I’m just hopeful that now, unlike the characters, we’re willing to admit it.

Additional Notes
The weakest link here is Ewen Bremner as Howard’s friend Justin, a wannabe-lothario who crashes the funeral to hit on Martha. Bremner gives it is all, but there isn’t really a joke there.

How Did It Do?
Death at a Funeral earned $46.8 million against a $9 million budget– almost all of it from outside the United States. It’s also a very polarizing film; with a 61% rating on RottenTomatoes, many critics hailed it as a return to old-fashioned British farce, a smartly-done piece of gleeful stupidity, while others found it falling flat. In 2010, Neil LaBute remade the film with an all-black cast. It made slightly more money, but also cost twice as much (American name actors aren’t cheap), and was less well-received, despite many critics relishing the opportunity to show that they disliked the British original first, thank you very much.

Next Time: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Zodiac (2007)

2007_-_Zodiac_Movie_Poster.jpg

Zodiac
Dir. David Fincher
Premiered February 28, 2007

Growing up, choosing a favorite movie was always impossible. The idea of a single film holding such a close place in my heart seemed unimaginable. Then I saw Zodiac.

Granted, I didn’t see it at first. When the poster first showed up at my morning bus stop, a friend lamented that while a movie about the Zodiac killer would be cool, Jake Gyllenhaal’s involvement was a guarantee of lameness. To be clear, Gyllenhaal had done plenty of good work; he’d just been nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but the guy just seemed kind of weedy.

I think I first saw the movie a year later, on DVD. I was about to move to San Francisco and my mom had ordered it on Netflix. I loved it, and after I moved, my enjoyment of the film only intensified. My issues with Gyllenhaal were completely allayed; not only does he do a great job, but it’s much more of an ensemble film. Frankly, it’s hard for me to talk about this movie because I have no idea where to start.

At the dark end of the 1960s, a mysterious serial killer known only as Zodiac begins terrorizing Northern California. His talent for coded messages attracts the attention of the local police (such as Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo), and captures the imagination of puzzle-obsessed cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose life is consumed by this mystery even as the rest of the world moves on.

One of the most notable things about this movie is its humor. That may sound strange, but it works for how the story is being told. Most of the cast consists of character actors best known for comedy, and in an era where movies generally were trying to be as gruesome and grim as possible, this was a huge break from the norm. That’s important here, because it makes the movie much more lifelike and real. And it’s not a cynical or nihilistic sense of humor; it’s entirely character-based. Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation of notorious oddball detective David Toschi particularly is one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen in film.

A huge amount of credit for Zodiac goes to its screenwriter, James Vanderbilt. In 2005, Vanderbilt’s script was touted as one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, and rightly so, but it’s a surprising choice for how subtly unconventional it is. This movie has no three-act structure; that is reserved for the characters themselves, many of whom don’t appear for what would have been the first or third acts. For the most part, it’s very episodic. It goes down every blind alley, but it contributes so fully to the characters and mood that, although the film is almost three hours long, you never feel like your time is being wasted. The rhythm of the story, combined with the astonishing cinematography, editing, and soundtrack make every scene count, and succeeds incredibly at setting up suspense and intrigue. While I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, he brings a style that borrows from a multitude of classic thrillers and detective stories from the 1960s and 70s and makes it his own.

Looking back, Zodiac being my favorite movie was kind of inevitable. All of my top 5 favorite films were ones I first saw around a certain age, and while other movies from 2007 may be more highly regarded, none of them reach out and grab you like this one. Even after you finish, you can’t stop thinking about it, and every time I’ve sat down to watch it again, I notice some new detail that only increases my love for it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
None. In cribbing the style of directors from the time period of the film (such as Don Siegel, early Wes Craven, and especially Alan J. Pakula), the film manages to be retro and ahead of its time. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that its visuals were a major influence on Mad Men.

Additional Notes
The montage of Zodiac’s letters taking dubious credit for a new string of crimes, the text interspersed with footage of the police and newsroom in three dimensions, is a very striking and novel (?) use of visual effect and editing.

This film does have one flaw. In the beginning of the film, Robert drops his son off at school in what is supposed to be early August.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $84.8 million against a $65 million budget, Zodiac was a mild disappointment. It failed to beat Wild Hogs for weekend box office, and advertising was quickly dropped as a result.

The timing of Zodiac’s release suggests that it was originally made for a fall 2006 release, all the better to compete for the 79th Academy Awards, but the deck appeared stacked, and Paramount buried the film in March– not a terrible release date, but not a particularly flashy one either. Fincher blamed poor advertising for his film’s success, but insisted that it would eventually find an audience.

He was right. Critics were overwhelmingly positive, earning the film an 89% rating on RottenTomatoes. A notable holdout was New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, who felt the film was “too populist.” Edelstein, as we shall soon see, would prove my opposite regarding many, many films from 2007. In any case, the movie made a ton of year-end top-10 lists (which is saying something for this year), and many critics have gone back and done retro reviews of it. It’s just that beloved now.

Zodiac wasn’t the only critically lauded script written by James Vanderbilt in 2005. The film’s release quickly motivated Hollywood to begin development on Vanderbilt’s much more anticipated script Against All Enemies, a biopic of counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke. It has been in development for over a decade, and will probably never be made.

Next Time: Death at a Funeral