Margot at the Wedding (2007)

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Margot at the Wedding
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Premiered at Venice August 31, 2007

Not to be confused with Rachel Getting Married, which came out the following year. It’s an easy mistake.

Noah Baumbach’s career is fascinating to me. A protégé of the legendary but little-seen Whit Stillman, Baumbach made a splash with his Stillmanesque 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, but floundered for nearly a decade as he attempted to find his place among his more irony-obsessed peers. In 2004, he stunned critics with his melodrama The Squid and the Whale, putting him on a whole new career path: millennial darling. Many filmmakers (Woody Allen for example) seem to aspire to have lived and worked in a bygone past; rare is the director who embraces the spirit of a younger age. Today, Baumbach is a filmmaker out of time, the voice of a generation that is not his own– a position he explores in his films Greenberg and While We’re Young.

Margot at the Wedding was not a terribly promising step toward that fate. A naturalistic, aggressively un-flashy character dramedy, it has more in common with the then-burgeoning Mumblecore movement. The titular Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful Manhattan author invited to the Long Island wedding of her younger sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to shiftless artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Away from their parents and youngest sister, Margot goes on a rampage; her Cinderella complex, inability to keep secrets, and habit of non-professionally diagnosing strangers with autism drives a wedge between Pauline and Malcolm, further antagonizes their redneck neighbors, and motivates her to seek an affair with her writing partner Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds). Meanwhile, Margot’s taciturn son Claude (Zane Pais) bonds with his cousin (Flora Cross) and fantasizes about Koosman’s older daughter (Halley Feiffer).

The film excels in its casting. Kidman, Leigh, and Black are exactly the actors one might imagine while reading the script. Black was mocked at the time for what seemed like an attempt at respectability, but Malcolm doesn’t seem far off from his usual persona, which fits surprisingly well into a dramatic context. Kidman gives what might be her most loathsome performance, and I mean that as a compliment, as a selfish control freak who fixates on familial misfortune and mines it for material.

In aggregate, however, Margot at the Wedding is a flat, dour experience with no semblance of tone, and a meandering, borderline-irrelevant plot. The film was nominated for several indie awards, but was coolly received by critics. Suffice it to say that Noah Baumbach moved on to better things, and so will we.

Eventually.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
One of the main characters contemplates moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the end of the film. “Did you know people live there now?”

How Did It Do?
Margot at the Wedding grossed just $2.9 million against a $10 million budget and received middling reviews (52% on RT). On both counts, this was a considerable disappointment following Baumbach’s comeback picture The Squid and the Whale. But Baumbach doesn’t appear to have been damaged by it; he came back with 2010’s Greenberg and has never looked back.

Next Time: Michael Clayton

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Lust, Caution (2007)

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Lust, Caution
Se, Jie
Dir. Ang Lee
Premiered at Venice August 30, 2007

Ang Lee can do whatever the fuck he wants. Fusty period pieces, superheroes, martial arts epics, character-driven gay romances, urban fantasies, he’s done them all, made a lot of money, and won a lot of awards. This chameleon-like approach is wonderfully effective when it comes to character in his “erotic” WWII espionage character-study Lust, Caution, based on the 1979 novel by Eileen Chang.

Opening in 1938, young Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) flees the Japanese invasion of Guangzhou to begin university in Hong Kong. While there, she develops an infatuation with Kuang (Wang Leehom), a young playwright/actor who brings her and several of his friends into a resistance cell against the Japanese. Kuang’s chosen target is Yee (Tony Leung Chu-Wai), the upstart administrator of Japan’s puppet government in Shanghai. Posing as a middle-class housewife, Wong wins the confidence of Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) before attempting and failing to seduce Yee himself.

Four years later, both Wong and Yee are living in Shanghai, an international city trapped in the Japanese Empire’s grip, and with a new chance to kill the man, Wong discovers that Yee’s charm is just one facet of the same sociopathy that enables him to hunt down his own people– and can poison her own mind.

Lust, Caution failed to make much of an impression on me, except perhaps as a cautionary tale, so forgive me if this is a shorter review than normal. The acting was fine, the dialogue was a trifle on-the-nose at times, and despite being praised by critics as “erotic,” I found the very explicit sex scenes to be fairly disturbing in a way that, I believe, enhances the point that Lee was trying to make.

How Did It Do?
Lust, Caution won Ang Lee his second consecutive Golden Lion award at Venice (the previous one being for Brokeback Mountain). When it came to wide distribution, the MPAA rated the film NC-17; previously known as X, the NC-17 rating is generally reserved for depictions of explicit sexuality and has a stigma of being both salacious and unprofitable due to the bombing of 1995’s Showgirls. Accordingly, the film also struggled to find distribution deals in countries with actual censorship laws, and a much-maligned R-rated cut was produced.

Nevertheless, Lust, Caution made money; grossing $67.1 million against a $15 million budget, it was the 85th highest-grossing film of 2007 (and keep in mind that I’ve reviewed 93 films from the year so far), the fifth-highest-grossing NC-17 movie of all time, and made an incredible $63,918 in its opening weekend in a single theater. It too earned a 73% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and was nominated for multiple awards but no Oscars.

Next Time: Margot at the Wedding

Balls of Fury (2007)

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Balls of Fury
Dir. Robert Ben Garant
Premiered August 29, 2007

Balls of Fury was heavily advertised throughout August of 2007, and even a dumb high schooler like myself could sense from the trailers that it was too stupid for my tastes. I didn’t dread watching it for this project, but I wasn’t looking forward to it either.

Well, color me surprised. Instead of being awful, Balls of Fury was just endlessly mediocre.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics, child ping pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) was humiliated in a defeat by East Germany’s champion Karl Wolffschtagg (Thomas Lennon). Not only did the loss make him a global laughing stock, it also cost the life of his father (Robert Patrick), a gambling addict done in by the mysterious triad kingpin Feng.

As an adult, Daytona’s doing ping-pong stunts for unappreciative audiences in Reno when he is contacted by an FBI agent (George Lopez) interested in tracking down Feng (revealed to be played by Christopher Walken, apparently doing a Christopher Walken impression). The FBI sets Randy up with new trainers (James Hong and Maggie Q) so that he will qualify for Feng’s tournament in Central America, only to discover that Feng is completely mad, and that the tournament will be a fight to the death.

Don’t get me wrong. Balls of Fury is not funny. It has one joke, that ping pong is serious business. And that joke falls even more flat when it’s built around the film’s star. In the past, I’ve called Dan Fogler “the poor man’s Josh Gad,” and I regret it, because while Gad is prone to gibbering pantomime, Fogler, by contrast, lumbers absentmindedly through this film as if he’s taken a wrong turn, stumbled onto the set, and been mistaken for the real star. The rest of the film tries to make up for this by surrounding him with high-caliber comedic actors (Terry Crews, James Hong, Aisha Tyler, and Patton Oswalt, whose one scene gave me the only chuckle of the film), but their jokes mostly come off as either orphaned punchlines or mediocre improvisation.

Balls of Fury, overall, is the most meh film I’ve come across doing this series. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if I woke up tomorrow morning and forgot it completely.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
There’s a cameo by Heroes’ Masi Oka.

Additional Notes
Some of the interior scenes in the film look a little strange, like they were shot on video and converted into film in post, like a British TV show.

This film repeatedly and mysteriously implies that Los Angeles is located in Orange County, California, an idea that residents of both localities would take offense to.

How Did It Do?
Balls of Fury grossed $41.1 million against an undisclosed budget, suggesting it didn’t profit, but it’s so cheap-looking that one can’t be certain. I don’t know what’s more surprising– that it made that much at all or that it still only ranked 106th for the whole year– but critics were not having it. Earning a 22% rating on RottenTomatoes, the majority of critics concluded that it was too tame to be funny or offensive– except for Richard Roeper, who in his overcompensating glory declared it “deadly.”

Next Time: Lust, Caution

Atonement (2007)

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Atonement
Dir. Joe Wright
Premiered at Malmö August 28, 2007

In his year-end retrospective, NPR film critic Bob Mondello wrote “In 2007, ‘Top 10’ Doesn’t Do Justice.” And while I may be ever-so-slightly biased (if hardly alone) in calling it the best movie year ever, Mondello’s claim cannot be denied. How many times did critics hint at Oscar Buzz that year for films that were never nominated? How many times in this series have I written “in any other year, this would be the best movie?” In that context, it’s kind of amazing that Atonement was able to transcend the year and receive as much praise as it did.

n many ways, Atonement represents the platonic ideal of a movie that got a huge amount of critical press and awards nominations (which it did), but has largely been forgotten (which I think it has, but can’t be sure). A British period melodrama, based on a recent popular novel, revisiting some fairly well-trod ground (notably similar to Waterloo Bridge), and just stylistically unique enough to avoid being pigeonholed as another Merchant-Ivory clone.

In 1935, well-born adolescent aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) pines for the much older Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family housekeeper who, thanks to the Tallis family, has become the beneficiary of a university education. However, Robbie has begun to fall for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the two rapidly enter a physical relationship. When Robbie entrusts Briony with a letter confessing his lust for Cecilia, Briony reads it and concludes that he is a dangerous “sex maniac,” in the words of visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple). Before dinner, Briony catches Robbie and Ceilia having sex in the library and assumes foul play. Later, Briony finds an unidentified man raping Lola and assumes it’s Robbie, who’s arrested and eventually convicted.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Robbie joins the Army to get out of prison; though, as a felon, his hopes of becoming an officer, and escaping his commoner status, are dashed. Robbie partakes in the defense of France, but the British are quickly driven back to the famous evacuation at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, both Briony (Romola Garai) and Cecilia have become nurses. Cecilia has continued to stand by Robbie and plans to rejoin him after the war, but Briony’s newfound maturity and severe guilt over Robbie’s false conviction has become too much to bear.

Aside from a keen directorial style that emphasizes the act of writing– or rather typing– Atonement is a fairly recognizable if well-executed film. It begins in an interbellum stately house where there are lots of goings on, class divisions abound, and something goes horribly wrong, and it’s not entirely clear what has happened until the very end; a setup very reminiscent of 2001’s far superior Gosford Park. None of the settings or situations really get their due, but it is a good-looking and emotionally challenging film.

Additional Notes
Although I was surprised to learn that Saoirse Ronan was only 13 at the time, I was not convinced of the need to change actresses to cover the five-year time jump in the midst of the film. Ronan is terrific, but they probably should’ve gone with someone a little older who could pull off both ages, as the difference in appearance between her and Romola Garai is jarring.

How Did It Do?
Atonement accomplished exactly what it set out to: it grossed $129.3 million worldwide against a $30 million budget, earned an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, in addition to nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, Supporting Actress (Ronan), and incredibly Best Picture; and it made an unaccountable number of top-ten lists at the year’s end.

The only problem is that, if “top ten” doesn’t do justice to 2007, then Atonement doesn’t do justice to “top ten.”

Next Time: Balls of Fury

The Kingdom (2007)

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The Kingdom
Dir. Peter Berg
Premiered at Edinburgh August 22, 2007

In the 2010s, director Peter Berg has come to be known as an auteur of ripped-from-the-headlines prestige dramas (all starring Mark Wahlberg) that nevertheless fail to attract either accolades or disdain. The Kingdom was only loosely inspired by real events, but you could be excused from thinking otherwise based on its reception by critics of the time. The media was hungry for social commentary on the War on Terror, and the back half of 2007 promised to deliver the goods, but, as we shall soon learn, only The Kingdom came close.

In 2007, Berg was just a journeyman director, but The Kingdom was unquestionably aided, in both its prestige and its best qualities, by the involvement of Michael Mann as producer, from longtime Mann collaborator Jamie Foxx in the starring role to the movie’s slick/instantly dated introduction, in which the entire history of modern Saudi Arabia is laid out in a rapid-fire pop-documentary style (unfortunately, it’s also nearly four minutes long).

The Kingdom purports to explore the inherent paradox of the titular nation in which takes place: established on the basis of religious fundamentalism yet sustained by fabulous wealth from the oil trade, few nations are better at cultivating their own enemies. In the film, this comes to a head when terrorists posing as police massacre civilians in an American compound in Riyadh, then come back to wipe out the survivors and first responders.

In the aftermath, FBI counterterrorism expert Ronald Fleury (Foxx) convinces the Saudis to let him bring his crack team of Special Agents (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Chris Cooper) to fly over and investigate the attack before it becomes too late to find the bad guys– but only for five days, under the strict supervision of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom) who is himself held back by a corrupt and distrustful bureaucracy. Everyone knows they’re lucky just to have that, as the very presence of US officials on Saudi soil could undermine public faith in the monarchy and plunge the nation into civil war.

At its best, The Kingdom is an energetic, compelling Michael Mann detective story with a wonderfully compelling cast: Fleury’s camaraderie with his team, and his burgeoning friendship with his Saudi counterpart, are as totally believable and extremely  watchable. Would that this were the entirety of the movie; unfortunately the final cut is overloaded with extraneous flourishes that serve little purpose except to keep the picture’s runtime at a respectable 111 minutes: characters are initially introduced with a subtitle showing their name and occupation, benefitting no one and distracting from relevant dialogue. As a US diplomat/bearer of exposition, Jeremy Piven blatantly attempts to inflate his performance by imbuing it with his usual shit-eating smarm. Interspersed scenes depicting the film’s villain Abu Hamza (Hezi Saddik), which only detract from the sense of mystery that the plot is trying to build around him, which concludes in some ill fated faux-profundity in the film’s closing moments.

The film additionally runs into trouble when it attempts to inject politics into its narrative. Not the politics of Saudi Arabia– in a sense, The Kingdom is political speculative fiction, but it’s entirely credible– but rather the feeble attempts at partisanship under the guise of inter-agency squabbling. In a time when the US Presidency and Justice Department actually are recklessly undermining the FBI in an attempt to consolidate political power, the appeal resonates, but it still has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, appearing late in the first act and never again.

By the film’s end, moments like these reduce The Kingdom from “gripping” to “just good enough.” But the very least, as we shall soon discover, it towers over its similarly-minded contemporaries.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Fleury and Mayes (Garner) debate the skills of Kobe Bryant.

How Did It Do?
It’s surprising that positive reviews of The Kingdom so willingly ascribed to it a timeliness that it may or may not have possessed, considering how lukewarmly it was received by critics and audiences. It’s $86.7 million gross failed to justify its $70 million budget. Critics were all over the place– some, ironically echoing the film’s most ardent boosters, disparaged the action and characters for being too enjoyable, others found the periphery wanting as I did (critics in the Arab world were similarly divided, but for different reasons). It’s a good cop movie, and it should have been content to be just that.

Next Time: Atonement

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

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3:10 to Yuma
Dir. James Mangold
Premiered August 21, 2007

The western is dead! Long live the western!

Sometime in the 1960s, the western was dubiously declared “dead.” And immediately, auteur directors started taking a stab at the genre. Since the glory days of Sam Peckinpah, I don’t think there’s been a single year in which some film wasn’t held up as a noble attempt to “bring back” the genre. 2007 was easily the apex of this phenomenon, with no fewer than four vying for critics and awards, and at least two more embracing elements of the genre.

The relationship between Evans and Wade is an interesting one: Wade is a bad guy and he knows it, but he sees an honesty in Evans that makes him stand out from the amoral wasteland of the American west. Even if Wade gets on the train, he won’t be gone long, but he’s still willing to put on a show if only for Evans. But the real standout in the cast is Ben Foster. He’s been all over film and television, and it’s nice to see him finally coming into his own over the past decade; he’s our generation’s Joe Pesci.

All in all, while it pales in comparison to so many of the other movies coming out at this time, even the other westerns, 3:10 to Yuma is a decent film with some great performances, and you should definitely see them if you like the people involved.

How Did It Do?
Although by no means a bad film, 3:10 to Yuma comes off today as one of the lesser entries in the rash of westerns and pseudo-westerns that came out in 2007; more of an Into the Wild than an Assassination of Jesse James or No Country for Old Men. Amazingly, 3:10 to Yuma outperformed both, commercially and critically. Its $70 million gross wasn’t nearly enough to recompense its $55 million budget, but most critics considered it an improvement over the 1957 original, and it received Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.

For James Mangold, a sometime chick-flick journeyman (sometimes for good, sometimes for ill) who’d struck big with 2005’s Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma was a significant shift toward his later work helming The Wolverine and Logan.

Next Time: The Kingdom

Superbad (2007)

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Superbad
Dir. Greg Mottola
Premiered August 17, 2007

The first ads I saw for Superbad were banner ads on MySpace. The film was advertised as “from the creators of Knocked Up,” provoking my immediate dismissal. Clearly this was going to be a cheap cash-in on Knocked Up’s success, starring two unknowns, one of whom I only knew from an obscure TV show nobody else had seen (yet). In reality, Superbad turned out to be the far superior film.

I don’t remember what turned me around on the idea, but certainly the TV ads helped, especially the ones with McLovin. Without giving away the best jokes, the campaign presented us with a teen movie with a very different, very teenage sense of humor. And then the actual movie took it to the next level. For that reason, Superbad is one of my top five favorite films, and probably always will be.

Most movies about teenagers suck because they’re not really about teenagers– they either exploit hoary old tropes to show nudity and wildness, or they simply put adult stories and characters in high school drag (remember that weird trend of teen adaptations of classic literature?). Superbad does neither. It is a raunchy comedy about teenage stupidity that’s also heartfelt, earnest, and empathetic.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are two best friends about to graduate high school and start college. Evan has been accepted to Dartmouth, which Seth couldn’t even dream of, and the fear of losing their friendship has kept them from dealing with the inevitable consequences of their separation. Instead, the two try to win the affections of their mutual crushes (Emma Stone and Martha McIsaac) by acquiring alcohol for their end-of-year party, with the help of dorky hanger-on Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who has recently acquired a fake ID that would be convincing except that the name on the card simply reads “McLovin.”

From this starting point, Superbad is tight and controlled; director Greg Mottola blesses the film with a clearly-defined aesthetic that most comedies sorely lack. Over the course of a single day, a random encounter with two grossly irresponsible police officers (Bill Hader and Seth Rogen) sets the guys off on a desperate After Hours-esque adventure, forcing them to reconcile their friendship and their future.

I don’t want to give Superbad credit for what it doesn’t do, but that certainly contributed to its success at the time, and I’ve yet to see a teen movie that has followed in its footsteps in such a way.

First, Superbad is not a romance. Although the film has love interests (and Emma Stone and Jonah Hill really do have chemistry here), the main conflict is over a platonic friendship between two young men. The fact that so many have read gay subtext into this film says as much about the frequent homoeroticism of adolescence (and the movie definitely has fun with that) as it does about the fact that close male friendships don’t get a lot of love in Hollywood. And they should, because it’s a huge, huge part of growing up that never seems to get its due.

Second, the teenagers act like teenagers. They don’t look 25 or have perfect skin or hair, or wear the latest fashions from Paris. They do not exist in the preordained, personality-based Apartheid state that high school is typically depicted as. They talk like teenagers. They swear incessantly like teenagers, but they’re also very clever like teenagers can sometimes be. And the whole film is permeated by a very teenage anxiety: the idea that everybody seems to know what’s going on except you.

And that’s what really makes Superbad hold up. It’s written in good faith, really trying to tell a teenage story. Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg claim to have started the script when they were only 13 years old; obviously it went through many drafts as their perspectives and writing skills improved, but something very important managed to survive that process. They didn’t go into it hoping to imitate or capitalize on anything that came before, but simply make something new: a comedy of youth as youth sees it.

How Did It Do?
Superbad grossed $169.9 million against a $20 million budget– an uncommonly lean budget for an Apatow production, but it’s worth remembering that Apatow neither wrote nor directed. It earned a well-deserved 87% rating on RottenTomatoes, but failed to make any notable year-end lists, in contrast to Knocked Up, which was only slightly better-received at the time. This may be credited to the fact that Superbad ended up relying so heavily on the Apatow name, which had only become famous as a result of Knocked Up a few months before.

At the same time, a small contingent of critics took Superbad much more seriously than Knocked Up. Wesley Morris used the word “sophisticated” –in a negative review, no less. Stephen Farber compared it to American Graffiti and Y Tú Mamá También. The seeds for Superbad’s legacy were already sown.

Perhaps most astonishingly, Superbad, a raunchy teen sex comedy that broke the record for most utterances of the word “fuck” per minute, re-defined Seth Rogen as a cinematic renaissance man. Having co-written Superbad at 13 and having become a staff writer for a network TV series at 18, he went on to become a regular presence on both sides of the camera and on both the big and small screen, finally turning to directing with Evan Goldberg on This is the End and The Interview. So too have co-stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, who both broke out in the wake of Superbad’s success and have each received multiple Academy Award nominations.

This is what great comedy can do.

Next Time: 3:10 to Yuma

The Invasion (2007)

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The Invasion
Dir. Oliver HirschbiegelPremiered August 17, 2007

If you went back to 1955 and told people that Jack Finney’s pulp novel The Body Snatchers would end up having the legacy it did, they probably wouldn’t believe it. But it’s not hard in retrospect to see why it did: pod people, the idea of being replaced by a perfectly soulless facsimile, is both universally scary and incredibly versatile.

The 1956 film adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, is easily my favorite, as it uses that versatility to its fullest; it’s probably about Communism, but by no means does it have to be. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, by contrast, is uncomfortably dated; while it has fun contrasting the original’s small-town setting with big-city alienation, its antipathy towards psychoanalysis is too reminiscent of Scientology for my tastes.

In 1993, a newly respectable Abel Ferrara remade the film again, this time as a more character-focused story with environmental themes. It was critically praised, but barely got a limited release, and few people have seen it even now. I would have watched it before this review, but Netflix blew me off. Also, in 2005, former teen idol Shaun Cassidy produced a short-lived television update of the story called Invasion, hoping unsuccessfully to capitalize on the popularity of Lost.

2007’s The Invasion, meanwhile, does try to seize on a paranoia of the day, but one you might not expect, and may not even have remembered: the then-widespread fear of global pandemics.

I should’ve seen this coming. Anthrax and SARS were big deals in their time. Two television series, 24 and Heroes, featured season-long plots revolving around weaponized diseases. And at the end of 2005, my aunt, a retired scientist, visited us from Florida in the sincere belief that I would likely be dead soon from the H1N1 virus commonly known as bird flu, an allegedly imminent pandemic expected to kill between a third and half of the global population within the following two years. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same speed and mortality rate as the Black Death, so if bird flu didn’t kill me, the ensuing antisemitic pogroms probably would.

This is more or less how The Invasion is framed– at first. The film opens with a space shuttle disintegrating upon re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere (the film uses actual footage from the Columbia disaster, which had occurred just four years earlier. Classy.). Among the wreckage, CDC director Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) finds and is infected with clusters of a seemingly alien virus that alters the brain during REM sleep (for which read: any sleep whatsoever) and causes an absence of emotion, as well as a psychic desire to spread the disease, which Tucker does by using the CDC to administer “vaccines” ostensibly against the contagion itself.

Meanwhile, Kaufman’s ex-wife Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) is a Washington, DC psychiatrist whose patients have begun to complain that their friends and family are not themselves, before they mysteriously abandon her services altogether. During a Halloween party, Carol finds a sample of the virus and gives it to her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). As Ben and his associate Dr. Steven Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) perform research, Carol discovers that her son, now being held by Tucker, is immune to the disease, possibly as a result of having suffered from encephalitis earlier in life. On this evidence, Carol has to escape a quarantined Washington to rescue her son, while Ben and Steven try to find a cure.

From the very beginning, the trademark of pod people is that they take away people’s emotions, so it’s important for the main cast to have a good emotional range for maximum contrast. The casting of the famously stoic Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig suggested a level of self-awareness that the film sadly doesn’t possess.

Midway through production, The Invasion’s screenplay was hastily re-written by the Wachowskis and re-shot by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, and as you might expect, the finished product is overloaded with plot holes. At one point, Carol is infected, and instructs her son to give her a shot of adrenaline if she falls asleep, raising the question of why she doesn’t just inject herself preemptively. Sometimes the pod people act in a fairly normal manner, while other times they act like mindless zombies. In this iteration, dogs, much like with earthquakes and thunderstorms, can instinctively tell when pod people are nearby and start attacking them, so pod people are killing dogs all over the place until halfway through, when that aspect is dropped entirely. At one point, a pod person tries to get Carol’s door open, but walks away when she locks the door. Why he didn’t just break through the window is unclear, except that they wanted the movie to have a jump scare. Similarly, the pod people can spread the virus by vomiting a phlegmy substance onto others, yet they mostly choose more diplomatic methods that people can easily avoid, or elect to do nothing.

The production is barely more competent than the screenplay. As it is famously difficult to acquire filming permits in the central part of America’s capital city, many films and TV shows set there are shot in nearby Baltimore. This movie is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with skyscrapers aplenty. Even more bizarrely, the climax, actually set in Baltimore, is filmed in Los Angeles, with landmarks such as the AON Tower in full view.

The film is also frenetically edited, with scenes of people planning to do some action interspersed with scenes of that action taking place. One fairly mundane scene from the third act is shown at the very beginning of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis-style, for no discernible reason. But more than anything else, no review of this film would be complete without discussing its ending. Spoiler alert for those who care, but it needs to be addressed:

In The Invasion, being a pod person is curable.

Not only is it curable, but in the epilogue it is shown to be cured very easily and almost instantly, as the virus, much like the aliens in War of the Worlds, has no defense against Earth’s natural ecosystem, and by extent its medicine. The whole conceit of the original story is that the invasion is irreversible– that’s what makes it scary; the world of the film, and by extent of you the reader/viewer, is being taken away forever. The Invasion not only gives us an ostensibly crowd-pleasing happy ending, it takes away any consequences; by the end, a few people have died, but otherwise everything is exactly as it was before. The film somehow sees this as a demonstration that humanity comes with a price; in fact it’s the opposite.

We’re left with a film that, in attempting to address current events, feels like a throwback to Hollywood’s 1990s Dark Age, with a classic premise reused as an excuse for a malformed, cliché-ridden thriller with bad special effects that is never willing to embrace the darkness at its center. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has stayed remarkably ripe for fun, thrilling, and thoughtful reinterpretations, but The Invasion is, and probably always will be, an outstanding blemish on that record.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carol turns on the radio one morning, during a news report of an exceptionally deadly suicide bombing in Iraq (which in 2007 is saying something). It seems like it’s going to come back into play later, but it doesn’t, except when the pod people briefly cause world peace, wrongly conflating human emotion with desire as the source of war.

Additional Notes
In a recreation of a famous early scene from the 1978 film, a woman runs onto the road shouting “they’re coming!” In the ’78 version, the person doing that was Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 original and thus the scene is a cute little tribute. Here, it’s nobody, in tribute to nothing. Just another instance of the movie missing the point entirely.

How Did It Do?
The Invasion grossed $40.2 million against an $80 million budget, earned a dreadful 19% rating on RottenTomatoes, and to date was the last iteration of the Body Snatchers mythos, at least until Paramount gets the idea to reinvent it as the soulless launchpad for a cinematic-universe that will never happen. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who was inexplicably hired by producer Joel Silver on the strength of his critically acclaimed Hitler’s Bunker movie Downfall, never attempted a major blockbuster again, but continued making movies, most notably the appallingly-received Diana.

Next Time: Superbad

Mongol (2007)

mongol

Mongol
Dir. Sergei Bodrov
Premiered at Vyborg August 10, 2007

When Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol dropped at the Vyborg Film Festival, the burgeoning community of online history buffs was abuzz. Previously, the only notable film to portray the life of the man we know today as Genghis Khan was 1956’s The Conquerer, a movie so bad that it literally gave people cancer.

What’s more, Mongol promised to do it right. A decade earlier, Hollywood had attempted to engineer a Genghis biopic as a vehicle for Steven Segal, but Mongol was a Kazakh production, shot mostly in China by a Russian director, and emphasized the historicity of the great Khan’s early life without skimping on production value. In certain ways, it was no surprise that this hadn’t happened sooner, but in other ways it was a long time coming.

In the late 12th century, the Mongol Khan Yesügei (Ba Sen) takes his son Temujin (Odyam Odsuren) to choose a wife from among his former enemies, the masked Merkits. Instead though, Temujin chooses Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), the wily daughter of an insignificant tribe. After Yesügei is murdered by yet another tribe, Temujin is forced to fend for himself, forming a brotherhood with fellow traveler Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar) and dreaming of the day he can rejoin his bride.

That day eventually comes, but even as an adult, Temujin’s (Tadanobu Asano) problems are far from over. Even as he gains strength, his enemies mount, from a would-be assassin (Amadu Mamadukov) to Jamukha himself (Sun Honglei), often relying on the cunning of Borte (Chuluuny Khulan) to aid him as he walks the road to greatness.

As might be expected, Mongol aims to correct westernized images of the Great Khan as a mysterious, bloodthirsty terror, and does this by portraying him as a family man. Its ambitions are mighty and its tone is consistent, but if anything, it’s too focused to relate to on a personal level in a manner beyond a mere language barrier. Your attention is kept not by wondering what will happen to these people, but simply what will happen next.

In its aims and its limitations, Mongol interestingly resembles John Boorman’s Excalibur in how it prioritizes fidelity to the original story above all else. But Excalibur is fantasy, and has survived as a cult classic because its alienating qualities and uncompromising mythology make it unique. Mongol is pure history, and without properly exploring its characters and their relationships, they more resemble chess pieces or names in a book; a well-intentioned but lifeless picture.

How Did It Do?
Mongol wasn’t released in the west until mid-2008, grossing $26.5 million against an $18 million budget, but nevertheless earned an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Originally planned as the first part of an epic saga on the life of Genghis Khan, preparations for a sequel have repeatedly stalled.

Next Time: The Invasion

Hot Rod (2007)

hot_rod

Hot Rod
Dir. Akiva Schaffer
Premiered August 3, 2007

The arrival of Hot Rod was, amazingly, my introduction to The Lonely Island, the Los Angeles-based comedy team that broke out of the local scene in the mid-2000s and, through Andy Samberg, brought new relevance to the long-running sketch program Saturday Night Live, where they appear to have been hired as a package deal. The team was at its peak at this time, with Samberg the breakout star of that SNL cast, and his appearance to promote this film on The Daily Show led me to check out his work.

Oddly, it didn’t lead me to seek out Hot Rod in the theater. Which isn’t that strange; I rarely went to movie theaters due to cost and the difficulty of scheduling with friends, and it wasn’t as if there weren’t other, better things to see at that time. And the advertising looked really stupid. But it got kind of an underground following pretty quick, so I ended up looking forward to seeing it now.

Samberg plays Rod Kimble, an ambitious townie whose late father was a legendary stuntman. Wanting to follow in his footsteps, he gets a team together (played by Bill Hader, Jorma Taccone, Danny McBride, and Isla Fisher) with the intent of jumping over fifteen buses on a motorcycle (one more than Evel Knievel) for a $50,000 reward. With this money he plans to get his violent but ailing stepfather Frank (Ian McShane) a new heart, saving his life so Rod can eventually beat him in a fight.

If you like Andy Samberg, you’re going to like this movie. Samberg is probably the only person in the world who can pull off the “bumbling braggart” persona and still be likable, and with the Lonely Island team behind him, the dialogue and pacing know exactly when and how to bring the laughter. The supporting cast is great as well; Isla Fisher is a general nice love interest with a gratuitously douchey boyfriend (Will Arnett), and Danny McBride plays his usual casually violent type, but the real standouts are Hader as Rod’s non-sequitur-dropping, drug-enthusiast mechanic; and McShane, who strikes terror into Rod’s heart but does it with a wry smile, much like his previous character Al Swearingen on Deadwood.

Hot Rod isn’t a great film by any stretch; at best it’s the second-best comedy film of August 2007– in very good company, mind you–; but it is perfect for what it is: a silly, goofy comedy from some silly, goofy people.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Lonely Island sidekick Chester Tam has a minor role– he’d later take advantage of the 2007-08 WGA strike to create the miniature webseries How to Become an Internet Celebrity. Plus, there’s a lot of ‘80s nostalgia, with a soundtrack full of synth-pop and mullet rock.

Additional Notes
Sissy Spacek plays Rod’s mom, and she looks just like Shirley MacLaine here. I couldn’t stop seeing Shirley MacLaine.

How Did It Do?
Originally intended by and screenwriter Pam Brady as a vehicle for Will Ferrell, Saturday Night Live head Lorne Michaels convinced Paramount Pictures to retool the film as a vehicle for The Lonely Island. And although it has a cult of defenders, this turned out to be a bad idea. Hot Rod flopped, grossing a measly $14.3 million against a $25.3 million budget, and put off critics who tore into Samberg particularly, earning a 43% rating on RottenTomatoes.

Hot Rod’s failure worked out badly for everyone except the Lonely Island. Yes, their only other film, 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, also flopped spectacularly; and yes, director Akiva Schaffer’s only solo directing credit, 2012’s The Watch, was tanked by its tangential relationship to a real-life tragedy, but the guys kept doing their thing on SNL to great effect.

Next Time: Mongol