Beowulf (2007)

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Beowulf
Dir. Robert ZemeckisPremiered November 5, 2007

Good fucking Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

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Bee Movie (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Beowulf

Dan in Real Life (2007)

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

Why are you all so obsessed with this movie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Bee Movie

Youth Without Youth (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Dan in Real Life

Enchanted (2007)

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Enchanted
Dir. Kevin LimaPremiered at London October 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Youth Without Youth

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour (2007)

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

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No information could be found regarding the promised sequels.

Next Time: Enchanted

American Gangster (2007)

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American Gangster
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered October 19, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

Lions for Lambs (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs This Was Made in 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: American Gangster

30 Days of Night (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Lions for Lambs

Paranormal Activity (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: 30 Days of Night