War/Dance (2007)

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War/Dance
Dir. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

Whatever you say about War/Dance, it’s a hell of a lot better dance movie than Stomp the Yard.

It’s also the first documentary of this retrospective, and it’s very conflicting. It’s a stark portrait of hope in the face of horrific tragedy…that’s oddly polished and conflict-free. It’s a window into a generation raised without innocence and their quest to prove that they are more than just victims…that explains nothing about the war around which it revolves. It’s beautiful…it’s too pretty.

War/Dance takes us to northern Uganda, at the fringe of a long, violent conflict between the Ugandan government and Lord’s Resistance Army, an amorphous personality-based terrorist group revolving around a fellow named Joseph Kony who you may have heard about a few years ago when he became the target of an online campaign despite having nearly already been defeated. However, that wasn’t the case in 2005, when 50,000 refugees were packed into the Patongo refugee camp. Although not far from their own homes, the native Acholi people cannot tend to their fields for fear of being murdered or abducted by the LRA.

Even the children are not safe. Tens of thousands have been abducted and pressed into service as child soldiers; hundreds of thousands have been orphaned. But in spite of everything, Patongo’s primary school still competes in Uganda’s annual performing arts competition, giving the children a chance to shine, as well as to demonstrate that their struggle is not to be forgotten. At the competition, Patongo Primary hones its strengths:

  • Western choral, the type of singing you’d expect to hear in an English boarding school, represented here by 13-year-old Rose.

  • Traditional dance, specifically the Acholi ritual dance known as Bwola, whose work we see through 13-year-old Nancy, a surrogate mother to her younger siblings while her mother risks her life tending the fields after her father was diced to death by the rebels.

  • Instrumental music, in which 14-year-old xylophonist Dominic proves himself to be natural showman, but remains haunted by his two-week ordeal as a child soldier.

Dominic is easily the best part of the movie, such as when he breaks his silence about atrocities he was forced to commit in just a few days of abduction, or when he questions a recently captured rebel POW about his missing brother. Would that all of War/Dance was as compelling. Unfortunately, the movie feels derivative of both the “sad foreign children” genre of docs typified by Promises and Children Underground, and the child prodigy genre of a film like Spellbound. The movie does great work with the scenery of northern Uganda, but it feels more at home in a more spiritually-oriented story. You won’t be unhappy that you watched it, but you’ll probably be disappointed.

How Did It Do?
War/Dance grossed just $138,000 in an Oscar-qualifying release in New York and Los Angeles, but it certainly worked: the film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Critics gave it an overall 86% on RottenTomatoes, though a vocal minority mostly aired the same issues that I did.

Next Time: Once

 

Teeth (2007)

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Teeth
Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

C’mon. You know this one. You’ve never seen it, but you know. Ever since it came out at Sundance 2007, Teeth has been more reputation than movie.

Jess Weixler plays Dawn O’Keefe, an assiduously chaste high schooler whose aversion to sexuality in all its myriad forms conceals a secret unknown even to herself: she suffers from vagina dentata, a mythical affliction that gives her shark-like teeth in her vagina– though maybe it has something to do with the nuclear power plant near her house that’s also slowly killing her mother (Vivienne Benesch).

Maybe “suffers” isn’t the right word, because Dawn’s teeth start to come in handy, first to  ward off a sudden rape by her erstwhile crush (Hale Appleman) with deadly results, before realizing that she is in control of this “mutation.” As the casualties mount and Dawn’s innocence morphs into violent cynicism, Teeth gleefully devolves into the kind of supernatural revenge fantasy that actual teenage girl might engage in, and which is scary and silly in equal measures. Or at least tries.

Teeth falls squarely into the “inspired but unskilled” category, as you might expect from a directorial debut. The horror and the humor are there in the script, and Weixler as Dawn knocks it out of the park even when she doesn’t say anything, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. It’s just slightly too bland, the colors too pale, the camera too staid, the pace just a little too slow.

The lack of style is compounded by the film’s rather misaimed sexuality. Director Mitchell Lichtenstein is gay, and his apparent inability to properly male-gaze Dawn is a big problem in a movie predicated on, for lack of a better phrase, killing the audience’s boner. Occasionally, the movie he intended breaks through, but without the proper buildup, Teeth is just “consistently almost good.”

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Teeth’s production came at the apex of power for the American Evangelical Right (for more information see Jesus Camp), and the emphasis on purity culture is very timely. It’s heavily implied that Dawn subconsciously gravitates toward chastity as a coping mechanism for her mutation, but it’s not just her: the unnamed state she lives in has banned the depiction of female genitalia in textbooks.

How Did It Do?
A year after premiering at Sundance, distributor Roadside Attractions released Teeth into just sixteen theaters. Naturally, it only grossed $347,578 in the US. It did significantly better in Europe, but only relatively, as it only ever grossed $2.3 million worldwide.

While it probably made its money back (it looks like it cost less than $1 million), I am not remotely surprised that Teeth didn’t make a lot of money. Even if its release hadn’t been pitifully limited, I distinctly remember this being a movie that everyone knew about but nobody saw. The type of horny teenage boys that would have been interested in seeing it in the first place were also the type too embarrassed to be seen watching it in a public theater, and social horror genre did not have the adult audience in 2007 that it does today. However, critics were surprisingly favorable, earning a 79% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Had more people seen it, perhaps Jess Weixler would have had a more successful career. Mind you, she gets plenty of work, but her eyes, smile, and ability to say some really stupid shit with a straight face should have destined her for more. Even more unfortunately, Mitchell Liechtenstein’s debut film has also proven his peak; his second film Happy Tears made only $22,464, and his third Angelica simply languished in the festival circuit.

Next Time: War/Dance

 

The Savages (2007)

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The Savages
Dir. Tamara Jenkins
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

This retrospective has given me plenty of opportunities to bash the Mediocre Prestige Film. This time I get to talk about its distant cousin, the Dour Indie Dramedy. It’s similar to Oscar Bait, but instead of self-important grasps at relevance and big soliloquies, it has low production values, unfocused middle-class angst, awkward attempts at “quirky” comedy, unappealing nude scenes, a soundtrack that’s 90% glockenspiel, and forced, peripheral attempts to appear literate, and will guarantee you leave the theater unhappy. I’m pretty sure my mother has seen every one of these films.

Dour Indie Dramedies were something of a dying breed in 2007– Rocket Science and August’s Margot at the Wedding are the only others I can think of, but only in The Savages do we get the full package, as it contains all the aforementioned stereotypical traits, plus main characters who are writers, because of course they are.

I should mention that there’s nothing technically wrong with this movie. The titular Savages, aspiring playwright Wendy (Laura Linney) and theatre professor John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), hear news that their estranged and abusive father Lenny (Philip Bosco) has recently lost his live-in girlfriend and is suffering from dementia. After retrieving Lenny from Arizona and placing him in a nursing home near John’s college in Buffalo, Wendy and John decide to stay together until the New Year, in the hope that their mutual encouragement will get John to finish his book on Bertolt Brecht and Wendy can finish writing a play based on their childhood.

But that’s it. John is blunt and Wendy is self-absorbed, and they get along until they don’t. The performances are good. It’s just uninteresting and uncinematic and depressing. The Savages actually got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar noms, but there are a thousand movies just like this one, and I don’t need to see any more.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
9/11 is invoked. Analogies are made to the short-lived color-coded terror alert system. “We’re in yellow right now, so we should just be aware.” Wendy watches an Oxi-Clean commercial. John and Wendy engage in meaningful abuse of prescription painkillers and antidepressants.

Additional Notes
There’s a scene where Lenny holds a screening of The Jazz Singer. For some reason, Lenny starts thinking the movie is about him. Much weirder to me is that college-educated intellectuals John and Wendy are surprised by the appearance of blackface at the end. Isn’t one of you a professor of theatre?

Another weird thing: everyone in this movie, set and filmed in 2007, apparently owns an ancient 1980s-model tube TV set.

How Did It Do?
The Savages only made $9.6 million against a $9 million budget. Dour Indie Dramedies had rarely been financially successful, but continued to be made basically because they were easy to write and cheap to produce, Sundance judges loved them, and with enough talent, you could get some awards buzz– as The Savages did, earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, making multiple end-of-year top ten lists, and netting Oscar Nominations for Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay. But the writing was on the wall for this subgenre, and Tamara Jenkins notably never wrote or directed a film again.

Next Time: Teeth

Rocket Science (2007)

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Rocket Science
Dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

In the 2000s, a popular way to discredit an indie movie was to point out any similarities it might have to another indie movie. That’s how I first heard about Rocket Science; in a Cracked listicle that read “I preferred this movie when it was called Rushmore. And while that wasn’t reason enough to look into it for this project, I did come across some positive reviews that pushed me over the edge.

Reece Thompson stars as Hal Hefner, a shy teenager with a painful stutter who is approached out of the blue by debate team ace Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). Ginny constantly represses her personal feelings in a misguided attempt to hone her craft; mistaking her infatuation with Hal for paternalism, she encourages him to join her on the debate team.

When their hormones briefly prevail, Ginny freaks out and transfers to a private school– and rival debate team. Hal, overwhelmed by his involuntary attraction to her and subsequent sense of betrayal, falls apart inside.

Rocket Science isn’t without its flashes of brilliance. Director Jeffrey Blitz films Kendrick with the furtive, distinctly innocent gaze of a lovesick teenager, something most of us will recognize, but which I have never before seen on film. He also succeeds at framing debate as a hyper-competitive pseudo-sport, with Ginny the aloof and superstitious pitcher/center/quarterback. Having gone to a school where speech and debate kids were popular and got letter jackets, I can testify to the accuracy of this depiction.

For the most part, however, the film is confused. The narration is pretentious, unnecessary, and out of place. The original score is hyperactive and overloud. The visuals, by contrast, are drab and unsaturated to the point of distraction. The film is also teeming with gratuitous darkness around the edges; Hal’s mother (Lisbeth Bartlett) perpetuates a cycle of familial dysfunction, his brother (Vincent Piazza) is an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac; while Ginny’s child neighbor and Hal’s confidant (Josh Kay) is clearly a disturbed character. I can’t lie and say I didn’t recognize something authentically youthful in the story, but what should have been a poignant and grounded coming-of-age tale is wrapped in off-putting quirk, a meandering script, and tone-deaf post-production.

It has nothing in common with Rushmore, by the way.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Barry Bonds is namedropped. Nick D’Agosto performs, in his tenth year of playing teenagers, and his character insists that inner city living is due for a comeback. He’s the only person whose mellifluous dialogue really fits.

Additional Notes
Jonah Hill has a minor role as the leader of the school’s philosophy club. “We read everything, but no Hegel.” It’s the funniest thing in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Rocket Science was a flop, even by the standards of tiny indie movies, grossing $755,744 against a $4.5 million budget upon general release, and placing it among lowest-grossing films of the year. It was unexpectedly also a critical darling, earning an 84% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Among the film’s biggest boosters was Bob Mondello, who called it “conventionally unconventional.” I’d rather save that description for the next movie.

Rocket Science was also only the second film performance by Anna Kendrick, who would blow up the following year with her involvement in the Twilight films and eventually reunite with Jeffrey Blitz for 2017’s Table 19.

Next Time: The Savages

Ghost Rider (2007)

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Ghost Rider
Dir. Mark Steven Johnson
Premiered January 15, 2007

In 2017, it’s weird to look back at a time before superhero movies existed. And when they finally did, they were mostly DC comics adaptations– Superman and Batman. For the longest time, DC’s competitor Marvel was nowhere to be found.

After 1989’s Batman, superhero movies were all the rage, and Marvel’s staggering unwillingness to play ball was bad for everyone. The comic publisher’s carefully guarded licensing left major studios to fill the gap by adapting several kidunfriendly indie comics, with predictably dire results. Finally, when Marvel went bankrupt in 1996, it was snatched up by toy magnate Avi Arad and given a film division. “Marvel Studios” wasn’t an actual studio, but it finally gave Hollywood what it wanted, and it worked out really well. Usually.

The first license, 1998’s Blade, did way better than expected, and things seemed only to improve, with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises setting new records and new goals, both commercially and critically. The first critical misstep, 20th Century Fox’s Daredevil, was a punching bag for the press. However, and quite unfortunately, it was also commercially successful enough to convince rival studio Sony to bring writer-director Mark Steven Johnson aboard to work on their own latest Marvel acquisition, Ghost Rider.

The movie opens with an introductory monologue by character actor Sam Elliot that blatantly rips off the intro from The Big Lebowski, and has very little to do with the story until much later, followed by a 20-minute origin story sequence that feels way, way longer. Back in 1986, or a version of 1986 that makes no attempt to look like anything other than the 2000s, Matt Long plays teenage motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (not to be confused with “Average Homeboy” Denny Blaze), who plans to steal away with his girlfriend Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). After discovering that his father (Brett Cullen) is dying of cancer, Johnny takes up a faustian offer from Mephistopheles himself (Peter Fonda, because motorcycles) to cure him. Naturally, dad dies the next day in an accident, but Mephistopheles appears to have made Johnny immortal for some future purpose. Orphaned and literally soulless, Blaze leaves Roxanne.

You can imagine how that felt way longer than twenty minutes.

Twenty years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is…basically a different person. He’s still a daredevil, making good use of his satanic immortality, but avoids thinking about work at all costs, indulging a litany of adolescent quirks that he never had before, like watching nature documentaries, eating jelly beans out of a martini glass, listening obsessively to The Carpenters, and living in the constant suspicion that his deal with the devil is the only thing keeping him alive, much to the dismay of his friend and crewmate Mack (Donal Logue, attempting to do for this movie what T.J. Miller eventually did for Deadpool).

At this point, a lot of typical superhero tropes come in that give the appearance of a story, but don’t actually have anything to do with each other. First, Johnny runs into Roxanne (Eva Mendes), who is now a reporter. She isn’t a reporter in the comics, it was just easier for Johnson to rip off Lois Lane than try to write a strong female character who isn’t damaged in some way, even when the comic already did. Anyway, Johnny asks her out, she accepts, and when Johnny doesn’t show, she consults the Magic 8-Ball that she apparently keeps in her purse.

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Keep this in mind, because while it isn’t strictly relevant to the rest of the movie, it is not pointless, and will help illustrate the main way in which Ghost Rider fails.

The next thing that happens is that Mephistopheles’ demon-seed Blackheart (Wes Bentley) suddenly shows up to…well, it’s not clear at first what he wants. Mostly he seems to enjoy killing randos by turning them into a cross between Violet Beauregarde and Sonny from I, Robot. At this, Mephistopheles tasks Johnny with defeating Blackheart and his cronies, at which point Johnny discovers the ability to turn into a flaming skeleton in the dark of night and kill the wicked by looking into their souls. Of course he fails, leaves enough collateral damage to become public enemy #1, and is taken in by another soul-selling demon, a 150-year-old Texas Ranger/gravedigger, played of course by Sam Elliot, which sets in motion an utterly half-assed macguffin chase at the last minute.

But it’s not just the illusory plot. Wes Bentley is awful, playing Blackheart as a (slightly) more evil version of the plastic bag douche from American Beauty, and tries to match Cage for crazy expressions, but fails laughably and is never threatening; and he’s defeated using a strategy that, in the interest of creating drama, was explicitly shown not to work earlier on. There are other chintzy little things, like Mack watching a highlight reel that just consists of film footage from the previous scene. And these, and even the story, are secondary to Ghost Rider’s core failing.

Contrary to what you might expect, Ghost Rider does not suffer the least from Nicolas Cage’s involvement– he’s a perfect fit for the campy, surreal tone the movie tries to set. Emphasis on “tries:” there’s a total disconnect regarding the tone. Appropriately, the various sets, vehicles, and costumes go for a sort of satanic/biker/heavy metal aesthetic. But cinematography and editing are far more important to creating a mood and identity that sticks with the viewer, and the crew of Ghost Rider apparently didn’t get the memo. Nor did the film’s composer Christopher Young, whose work here seems more suited to be used as filler on a slightly upmarket police procedural.

And holy fuck, the CGI certainly doesn’t help, splattering the picture with random photoshop effects, jump scares, phony vehicles, and sub-1990s morphing effects. Seriously, Johnny Blaze as Ghost Rider makes the T-2000 look like Gollum. It’s not so much the texture as they way everything moves and is lit. Effects of this quality do not belong in 2007, and certainly not in a movie rooted in the very tangible, tactile world of asphalt, steel, and leather.

This is the killer. Without an effective tone, all the goofy weirdness– the jelly beans, The Carpenters, the Magic 8-Ball, the anarchic pileup of inert story clichés– that might actually have worked instead falls flat, so flat that despite its myriad flaws, I cannot summon enough emotion to outright hate it.

How Did It Do?
Ghost Rider earned $228.7 million against a $110 million budget. That’s right: this piece of movie concentrate cost nine figures, overcame the odds to become a worldwide hit, and still barely broke even. The studio ominously withheld the movie from critics until a day before its US premiere, and true to form it got trashed. Four years later, the movie managed to get a sequel with half the budget but vastly improved effects, helmed by Neveldine & Taylor, the absurdist-exploitation team behind Crank. It did even worse.

Next Time: Rocket Science

Stomp the Yard (2007)

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Stomp the Yard
Dir. Sylvain White
Premiered January 8, 2007

This review was literally a mistake.

During the 2000s, there was this vogue for movies about competitive dancing. The first one I remember was Bring It On, but the real tipping point into ubiquity was called You Got Served. I had confused this movie with that one.

You Got Served came out in 2004, and pitted a black dance group against a white one (I’m not sure whether this was meant to evoke issues of racism or it just made it easier to tell the heroes and villains apart). I never saw it, and by all accounts it’s awful, but at the time it was a decent hit, and the marketing for it stuck in your head like a novelty song. Like this film, it also came out in January. So you may forgive my confusion.

Now, dancing wasn’t something most people did in the 2000s. Instead, the vogue at the time was to stand silently at attention like that one scene in The Madness of King George. Dancing was a specialized skill performed by competitive semi-professionals, and the main style of competitive dance was Krumping, a combination of flips, randomly flailing like an inflatable tube man, and re-enacting Mortal Kombat, all in fast motion. This is something the Stomp the Yard captures pretty well, in the frantic, jittery style associated with cheap DSLR cameras. Most of the film isn’t nearly that energetic, but for some reason it’s all shot that way.

Columbus Short plays DJ Williams, an underground krumper who ropes his goody-goody brother (Chris Brown, in his first film role. Yeah.) into a major competition, only to lose him in a shootout by their rivals. Even if DJ’s brother wasn’t played by the standard-bearer of raging, psychopathic narcissism masquerading as sweetness, I still wouldn’t care, because the movie doesn’t care. And that’s the main problem.

After unfairly serving time for defending himself, DJ is sent to his aunt and uncle in Georgia and starts taking classes at Not-Morehouse University, where people apparently still register for classes in person, on paper, in 2007. There, he is entranced by April Palmer (Meagan Good), who gets a sexy intro so half-assed that it’d make a great parody. Unfortunately for DJ, she’s inexplicably in a relationship with irredeemable asshole Grant (Darrin Henson), the elitist, self-appointed leader of one of the college’s two rival fraternities best known for a type of competitive step known as stomping the yard. DJ’s skills at the club earn him an invitation to pledge for the rival fraternity, though they take issue with his excessively street style.

My issue with You Got Served is not with the genre. I’m sure you can make a good dance movie. But this movie does not give a shit. DJ’s a good guy in a bad situation, so he has no arc. The plot is flimsy and relies on tired old clichés and a wildly outdated understanding of social class. The actors playing DJ’s frat brothers aren’t given much to do, but they have fun with it, and the dancing is actually pretty cool. But there’s a lot more to the film than that, and that’s the problem.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The good guys are the ones dressed entirely in black. Butt-crack is still the new cleavage (though this is only implied, as Meagan Good’s wide shots are all tastefully in profile).

How Did It Do?
Stomp the Yard was a minor hit, grossing $75.7 million against a $13 million budget, and marked the high point in the directing career of otherwise B-movie filmmaker Sylvain White. Critics mostly agreed with my points against the film, and it got 26% on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: Ghost Rider

Freedom Writers (2007)

In 2007, the United States bond market crashed, triggering the Great Recession the following year. And yet the culture of the time was intensely optimistic, at least in the United States. Partly crazed by an avalanche of Presidential and Congressional scandals, the race to replace George W. Bush, now the most and least popular President in U.S. history, was dominated by a dynamic young African American who might have just had a shot at winning. In the entertainment industry, the vast expansion of cable, and subsequent attempts at catching it up by network television, created an outpouring of creativity that finally brought television to a level of respect previously reserved for film, and did so just in time for a strike by screenwriters to earn popular support, and a brief mainstream vogue for amateur content on YouTube.

The film world, though less subject to attention, was going through a similar spasm of enthusiasm. Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died– on the same day, no less. Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols directed their last films. John Carney, Ben Affleck, and Nacho Vigalondo directed their first.

It was an amazingly imaginative year for the film world. Technology had made it easier for people to make movies who otherwise might not have been able. The massive shift in audience tastes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks six years earlier still shaped what kinds of movies studios were willing– and unwilling– to make, but enough time had passed that filmmakers, audiences, and critics alike could have unselfconscious fun.

At the time, many critics believed 2007 to be the greatest year in the history of film. Today, many if not more still believe that. I am one of them, not least because I’ve seen more movies released in 2007 than any one of those critics ever could have seen at the time– studio blockbusters and festival indies, old-fashioned drama and low-budget horror, from every genre and at least seventeen countries– and have come away feeling extraordinarily lucky that I was able to live through that time. Though I wish I’d gone to theaters more.

Sure, there were terrible movies, and we’ll get to those soon enough, but entertainment is not a zero-sum game. While tastes may be subjective, a careful look will find more craft, excitement, and passion by volume than one could probably ever get from the likes of 1939 or 1968. More great films will be forgotten from 2007– and some sadly already have been– than most years are lucky enough to produce. Rest assured, at 136 feature films, this will be the most extensive retrospective I ever write. And I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

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Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hilary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard.  I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, and you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is most unorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired.

Additional Notes
I haven’t seen Finding Forrester since it was first released on DVD, but I’ve actually heard good things about it, YTMND nonwithstanding. I think Gus Van Sant’s mainstream work is often unfairly maligned (though he still couldn’t save Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
As we all know, this wouldn’t be the only time in 2007 Imelda Staunton playing a prissy, bigoted villain. But we’ll come back to that later.
Concerning inspirational teacher movies, the only one I really liked is Stand and Deliver. Edward James Olmos gives a great performance as the hardass/smartass Jaime Escalante, and it really does have a sense of humor. Plus, it’s about a math teacher rather than an English teacher, which is refreshing. Full disclosure: Both Escalante and Olmos went to the same college as me.

How Did It Do?
Freedom Writers barely broke even when factoring in marketing, earning $43.1 million against a $21 million budget. The film earned a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, while even many positive reviews noted that this particular genre/archetype had become completely played out.

Next Time: Stomp the Yard

 

1977 in Review

In 1977, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President of the United States, Apple went into business, and punk rock became commercially widespread. It was a time of unpredictable change. Peter Finch, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Chaplin died. Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hardy were born.

But as impressive as that may sound, I have no idea what compelled me to introduce this blog by covering this particular year. Though it produced its share of classics like any other, it’s not regarded as a particularly good year for movies, nor a particularly bad one. However, it was definitely worth covering. I began doing yearly retrospectives as much as an education for me as an outlet for my boredom, and I saw a bunch of great movies for the first time, as well as seeing some I already knew in a new light.

But let’s get down to the listicles:

Seven Movies I Should Have Reviewed

1. The Turning Point
Like most of the movies on this list, The Turning Point, directed by Goodbye Girl auteur Herbert Ross, was simply unavailable to watch in any format; not from any streaming services, not from Netflix DVD, not even from the library, and not through YouTube piracy. This is astonishing, as The Turning Point was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and two separate nominations for Best Actress (Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine), and notably introduced America to the legendary, recently-defected dancer, ballet choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. There are a lot of movies that have surprised me with their inaccessibility but this is the most shocking (except maybe Soldier of Orange).

2-3. Homage to Chagall/Who Are the DeBolts?
Five films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature of 1977. Two of them, Union Maids and High Grass Circus, had theatrical releases in 1976, and two more are simply unavailable for public viewing. Harry Rasky’s Homage to Chagall: The Colors of Love was the only feature documentary produced about Chagall before his death in 1985, and I found frustratingly little information about it. The winner of the award, John Korty’s Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? explored the lives of a couple of notable adoption activists. Both films received DVD releases at some point, but the hell if I could find them.

4. You Light Up My Life
You Light Up My Life was especially frustrating. Even without seeing it, there was a lot to talk about. From the 1970s-1990s, having a big, radio-friendly original song in your movie was a major way to make extra money and promote the film. Taking this to its logical extreme, writer/director/producer/songwriter/serial rapist Joseph Brooks created You Light Up My Life purely as a delivery vehicle for the song of the same name, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (one of a couple of dubious categories) and become the biggest single of the entire 1970s, which nobody born afterward has heard, and which anyone who was there at the time absolutely hates.

5. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
1977 offers a surprising amount of Jewish-centric movies, as the Jewish-dominated Hollywood studio system has historically been uncomfortable about alienating their mostly gentile American audience. It’s telling then that most of the Jewish-themed movies of 1977 were foreign offerings, while I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, schlockmaster Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema, managed to adapt a book about antisemitism by removing all references to antisemitism. Accordingly, it lost a great deal of credibility with critics– you know, in addition to being Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema.

6. The Last Wave
Did you know Peter Weir made a movie in between Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli? Maybe you did. I didn’t.

7. Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Doing these reviews, I try to be comprehensive; that means checking out the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Into the latter category should go Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Largely forgotten today, Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack films were blockbusters in their own times, coinciding nicely with the bizarre intersection of sensitive lefty activism and adolescent white-boy rage that defined the Nixon years. Like many angry white boys, Laughlin was convinced that every ill of society was part of an overarching problem, and so offered up a bizarre manifesto of world peace through Native American land rights, Montessori education, and Hapkido. With Watergate and Vietnam in the rear-view mirror, Billy Jack’s brand of self-indulgence was deeply unfashionable, and the final film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, couldn’t find a distributor. Laughlin naturally claimed that the government, and particularly Senator Vance Hartke, quashed the movie, apparently unaware that Hartke was retired by this point. The movie has a rare 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.

Ten Worst Movies of 1977 (That I Saw)

Dishonorable mentions: Equus, Bobby Deerfield, Suspiria

10. Pumping Iron
The most popular documentary of 1977, Pumping Iron is a jarringly uncritical, almost hagiographic exploration of the world of bodybuilding that comes off even worse than a hatchet job.

9. The Sentinel
A bizarre, derivative follow-up to several New Hollywood horror classics, The Sentinel misses the humanity in what its ripping off, and presents a convoluted, unthreatening menace.

8. Airport ’77
Following the lead of the movies the original Airport inspired, Airport ’77 is sluggish beyond words and struggles to find a core story.

7. Damnation Alley
Badly written, badly directed, badly acted, and gifted with extraordinarily bad special effects, Damnation Alley was meant to be the big summer sci-fi hit of 1977, but misses the mark so completely that one has to wonder what the studio saw in it to begin with.

6. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Totally convinced of its own self-importance, the sexploitation-morality tale Looking for Mr. Goodbar is endlessly meandering, confusing, and just plain gross.

5. Orca
A movie about a whale hunting people out of vengeance. Do I need to say any more?

4. Exorcist II: The Heretic
John Boorman’s spite-sequel to the excellent The Exorcist throws out the original’s style and emotional substance for an incomprehensible exploration of mirrors, locusts, and stupid demon names.

3. The Other Side of Midnight
Like Damnation Alley, The Other Side of Midnight was highly anticipated as a massive summer blockbuster. Like Damnation Alley, it is borderline unwatchable in every way. But at least Damnation Alley doesn’t bring poor, beleaguered history into the mix.

2. Tentacles
A complete waste of a movie. A waste of a fine cast, a waste of 35mm film, a waste of the Italian government’s money; Tentacles is unequivocally the worst of all the Jaws ripoffs.

1. Empire of the Ants
Same as above, but with ants instead of an octopus.

Ten Best Movies of 1977

Honorable mentions: The Duellists, Capricorn One, High Anxiety

10. Saturday Night Fever
Unfairly maligned for decades, Saturday Night Fever is an incredibly stylish but also uncompromisingly dark movie that makes for an unforgettable whole.

9. Smokey and the Bandit
What you might expect to be a low-down good ‘ole boy movie is actually a taut, heartfelt, and funny action-comedy in all the right ways.

8. The Gauntlet
Clint Eastwood’s talents behind the camera have never been clearer than in The Gauntlet, a thrilling chase movie that took action-comedy tropes to a dizzying new level.

7. A Special Day
Ettore Scola’s haunting recollection of life under Mussolini hones in on a single day for two of fascism’s biggest and least visible outcasts.

6. Soldier of Orange
Paul Verhoeven’s gripping, lived-in account of the travails of the Dutch Resistance in World War II unapologetically demonstrates the importance of justice and loyalty over youthful friendship, and offers a startling recommendation for those who may have to choose between one and the other.

5. Sorcerer
Maligned as an overindulgent mega-flop, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a gorgeous, endlessly intense picture that deserves nothing less than a popular revival.

4. A Bridge Too Far
The most expensive movie of 1977, Richard Attenborough’s star-studded, no-holds-barred portrait of the Allied failure to invade the Netherlands in World War II is a spectacle for every sense.

3. Annie Hall
Often regarded as his best movie, Woody Allen’s scatterbrained relationship comedy is an uproarious achievement in the melding of humor and the unique qualities of film as a medium.

2. Star Wars
An energizing throwback to a time when heroes were allowed to defeat villains, Star Wars was a massive leap that would come to redefine science fiction, the family film, and the movie business.

1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The most passionate of Steven Spielberg’s passion projects, the only film which he alone conceived, wrote, and directed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a pure cinematic experience, a heretofore unknown fusion of sci-fi extravaganza, creative allegory, and biblical epic that must be seen by anyone with a budding interest in filmmaking.

I have no idea what compelled me to do a review series on 1977. Despite the achievements especially of Star Wars, 1977 did not mark a turning point in movies as either an art form or (especially) as a business.

hat would come in 1978. Less than a month into the new year, actor-director Robert Redford inaugurated the first annual Utah/US Film Festival in Park City Utah. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, it was intended to showcase filmmakers that would otherwise have been overlooked by the Hollywood studio system. Though no one would be able to tell for decades, this plan would work all too well, as the major studios would begin producing fewer of their own movies from the mid-90s onward and rely on independent films to make up for the loss. At the end of that same year, the producers of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter attempted to circumvent public squeamishness about the movie’s subject matter by releasing the film in such a way as to meet the minimum requirements for an Academy Award nomination, get a nomination, and use the awards buzz as a marketing tool, and Oscar Bait was born.

But that’s a story for another day. Next time, I’m going to get more recent, and review the single greatest year in film history…

High Anxiety (1977)

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High Anxiety
Dir. Mel Brooks
Premiered December 25, 1977

Alfred Hitchcock loved the 1970s. His favorite movie at the end of his life was Smokey and the Bandit, after all. And it makes sense. As soon as he came to Hollywood in the early days of the Second World War, Hitchcock constantly fought with the studios, constantly testing the limits of violence, sexuality, and creative control. He didn’t always succeed, and sometimes he had to go outside the studio system entirely, but he almost always came out on top, creating a model for the auteur theory that would usher in the New Hollywood. His last film may have been behind him in 1977, but he was loving the ride.

So it makes sense that the definitive Hitchcock parody should come out at this time, and that it should come from Mel Brooks, an auteur in his own right fresh off of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silent Movie. And yet High Anxiety isn’t as well remembered as those. I don’t know why.

The story begins when renowned psychologist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes a new job as head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. But Thorndyke has a secret that could cost him his job: he suffers from High Anxiety, and seeks treatment from mentor-turned-colleague Professor Lilloman (Howard Morris).

What the hell is High Anxiety? What isn’t? Thorndyke is afraid of everything. He’s afraid of heights, naturally, which sends him into a completely dysfunctional state. He’s afraid of everyone around him, of sudden plot twists, and of music cues (provided, Blazing Saddles-style, by a passing orchestra).

But Thorndyke has much the be scared about. His predecessor at the PNIVVN died under mysterious circumstances, as does another doctor (Dick Van Patten) soon after. His prissy rival (Harvey Korman) and sadistic nurse (Cloris Leachman) are clearly up to something– besides their clandestine BDSM relationship– as patients at the PNIVVN never seem to get better, or, seeming fine already, can’t leave. Things get even stranger on a visit to San Francisco, where he’s cornered by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the ravishing, perpetually mildly aroused daughter of one of the institution’s patients who’s convinced of a grand conspiracy that only the two of them– and Thorndyke’s shutterbug comic relief sidekick (Ron Carey) can untangle.

With Mel Brooks, a lot of people find it hard to get into as adults, requiring repeat viewings, so I’m not sure how fair of a shake I’m giving High Anxiety. I certainly liked it. It got Hitchcock right, it got Brooks’ own unique style of humor right, the two work together, I just don’t know what else to say without just quoting the movie or describing scenes from it. Sadly, generally liking something doesn’t make for the most interesting review.

Except blonde Madeline Kahn, whoo.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
Victoria in one scene has a matching Louis Vuitton purse, pantsuit, and car.

How Did It Do?
High Anxiety grossed $31.1 million against a $4 million budget. Critics were generally if gingerly positive, mostly calling the film uneven or flawed but overall good, earning a 75% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Probably the biggest endorsement of the movie came from Alfred Hitchcock himself, who called its main Psycho homage “genius” and sent Mel Brooks some wine.

And that was 1977.

Next Time: 1977 in Review

The Gauntlet (1977)

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The Gauntlet
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Premiered December 21, 1977

It’s a cliché that a troubled production will either result in a total disaster or a crowning achievement, but what about a troubled development? How many times has a studio tried to make a movie, gone through multiple directors and casts trying to do so, and then finally put out something good?

In fact, it has happened at least once, and it is called The Gauntlet. Originally meant to star Marlon Brando and then Steve McQueen, producer Robert Daley finally got Clint Eastwood to take the project on, on both sides of the camera. Today, Eastwood is best known as a filmmaker of occasionally good prestige drama, and his persona in front of the camera has long overshadowed his reputation as a filmmaking renaissance man. The Gauntlet, however, is proof positive at the man’s ability to make the most out of what should have been a piece of sleazy ephemera.

Detective Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a perpetually drunken Phoenix police detective whose straitlaced new commissioner (William Prince) sends him to Nevada to pick up a mafia witness named Gus Mally. Arriving in Las Vegas, Shockley is surprised to discover that not only is “Gus” short for “Augustina,” a local prostitute (Sondra Locke), but that there’s a bet going around town that she won’t make it to testify in Phoenix. The reason they’re so certain of her failure is that the gangster she’s set to identify is Shockley’s very own commissioner, who’s set them both up for a fall and will stop at nothing to keep them from getting back to Phoenix.

The Gauntlet works really hard to be cool, and succeeds through sheer production value. After watching movie after movie– particularly action movies– shot with cameras with dirt in their gates, it’s shocking to see a crisp, clear image that rivals the very last days of 35mm Hollywood. The late-period jazz score by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding oozes cool in a middle-aged sort of way. Eastwood and Locke have terrific chemistry with a darkly comedic edge, appropriately since they were a couple in real life at the time.

But The Gauntlet’s real triumph is its special effects. I know the timing makes it impossible, but I can’t help but imagine Eastwood watching Grand Theft Auto and thinking “challenge accepted.” The majority of the movie’s budget was spent crafting elaborate, borderline-comedic action setpieces that make the movie feel like the missing link between the Dollars trilogy and Die Hard. The Gauntlet is a fascinating window into Clint Eastwood’s unique style and influences behind the camera. It’s also a loving tribute to how completely you can destroy shit using just bullets.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Just as in Grand Theft Auto, Las Vegas is a respectably midsized city of about 150,000. Meanwhile, Phoenix is in that late-boomtown phase where it’s already a big city but doesn’t look like one yet.

How Did It Do?
The Gauntlet was (probably) the 13th-biggest movie of the year. Grossing $35.4 million against a $5.5 million budget, it was Eastwood’s most successful directorial effort to date, just edging out the previous year’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Critics were deeply polarized at the time, with the consensus criticism being that the plot was too bland. In retrospect, however, critics have been overwhelmingly positive, earning the film a 78% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: High Anxiety