Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)

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Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Dir. Zach Helm
Premiered November 15, 2007

I wasn’t going to review this originally. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was mocked by critics. It lost an unconscionable amount of money.

But Minnie loves it. So I asked her to review it with me.

The titular Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a dandy Ed Wynn-ish 243-year-old who operates a magical toy store in New York City. However, he is now dying– not for any specific reason; it’s just time to go– and intends to leave his store to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), whose fear of pursuing her dream as a concert pianist has kept her in a state of arrested adolescence.

To this end, Magorium gives Mahoney a wooden box known only as the “Congreve Cube” in the hope that it will help her find the magic within. At the same time, he hires a seemingly humorless accountant named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to arrange his affairs, leading Henry into an unexpected friendship with nine-year-old loner Eric (Zach Mills).

Minnie: I love this movie. I love its vibrancy, its surprisingly age-appropriate commentary on death, its absurdity. I find the colorful madness of the movie to be so visually arresting that I find myself frequently overlooking its narrative missteps, and I find an incredible nostalgia in the childlike enthusiasm that is reflected by all of the characters, most conspicuously and unrealistically, the adult ones. Most of the reasons why people hate this movie are the reasons why I think its good. It’s busy, it’s childish, and, in all, it has a dubious relationship with reality.

Sam: I think that’s why I find it so frustrating. It goes in circles a lot, and I actually find the conclusion kind of horrifying in the same way as we both felt about Knocked Up. Mahoney has this dream and vision for her life, and the ultimate moral is that she doesn’t get to choose? The end of the movie is all about believing in yourself, but really it’s saying to believe in what other people think of you.

Minnie: I disagree. I think that there are dueling problems that Mahoney faces as a result of her not believing in herself. The first is her dream of being a pianist, and the second is her sadness that she cannot save the store she loves because she lacks the requisite magic. In the end of the movie, when she finds the magic in herself, I don’t think the implication was that she bent to peer pressure and abandoned her dreams for her friends, but rather that she found the confidence (or as they say with utmost disgustingness, her “Sparkle”) to pursue whatever dreams she has.

Sam: But she won’t be able to pursue those dreams, because now she’s going to run the store. I’m actually really surprised the movie went in that direction, as I felt the narrative was actually setting up Henry as this Mr. Banks-type who was going to rediscover his sense of fun and take over. Everyone wins!

This isn’t horrible, believe me. I’ve seen some bad movies on this project. But this movie makes some very odd choices. First, it has this framing device where the whole story is being told by the kid character Eric- or rather not. At the beginning of the movie, Eric narrates how he’s actually reading the story of Mr. Magorium’s life as written by his biographer Bellini (Ted Ludzik) who lives under the store. But Bellini doesn’t factor into the story at all; he doesn’t even have lines.

Minnie: I will not defend Eric’s narration, especially in announcing chapter titles that serve more as spoilers than actual markers, it is pretty awful. He isn’t a very good actor and his voice is not particularly interesting, and every time he starts to speak, I think to myself, “Oh Lordy, this again.”

Sam: The whole setup weirdly reminds me of the last movie Zach Helm worked on, Stranger Than Fiction.

Minnie: The real problem that arises in narrating this story like Stranger Than Fiction is that its main character was literally a character in the narrator’s book. In Mr. Magorium, there is no need for the book structure whatsoever. As you noted in multiple parts of the movie, it could have been taken out and nothing would have changed.

Sam: Stranger Than Fiction is one of my favorite movies, and it has some common elements with this film, but in a way that makes me wonder if Helm misunderstands his own strengths as a writer– granted, he’s not nearly as bad as Richard Kelly, but with Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium he definitely seems to display a similar one-size-fits-all approach to different stories.

How Did It Do?
Mr. Magorium grossed $69.5 million against a $65 million budget, all but squandering its marketing, and earned a 38% rating on RottenTomatoes. The film entered wide release on the same weekend as Enchanted, inviting a choir of dismissive comparisons by critics; Richard Roeper openly fantasized about Amy Adams’ Princess Giselle passing the titular emporium on her arrival in New York and dismissing it as cartoonish.

Even writer/director Zach Helm disowned the film, calling it a “technicolor trainwreck” in a 2013 interview. He refuses to watch it ever again, and has never directed a feature film since.

Next Time: The Golden Compass

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Juno (2007)

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Juno
Dir. Jason ReitmanPremiered at Telluride September 1, 2007

  • October 20-22, 2007: I go to see The Darjeeling Limited twice. Each time, the trailer for Juno plays beforehand. It feels very derivative, but I don’t know of what specifically. Very of its time.

  • December 7, 2007: My english teacher Mr. Stremel comes to class after seeing Juno with his wife and vents his spleen over how cloying and precious it was, in contrast to the far more realisitc Superbad. In spite of Juno’s critical acclaim, his judgment is enough to put me off seeing it with my mom.

  • July 18, 2008: My girlfriend tries to get me to watch Juno. I can’t get past the first ten minutes, which look and sound like Napoleon Dynamite had a stroke. I convince her to give Superbad a try, because even though I’m starting college, my english teacher’s rant will stay with me forever.

Needless to say, I didn’t go into this movie with high expectations. The first ten minutes are, as previously mentioned, awful, and just about every sketch comedy group you can think of (which had multiplied online during the 2007-08 WGA strike, when regular television was suspended and Juno coincidentally premiered) had made fun of its then-fashionable kitsch aesthetic and especially screenwriter Diablo Cody’s bizarre cinematic patois: a mix of Valley Girl, 1930s hey-Joe-whaddya-know rhyming slang, Gilmore Girls-esque rapid fire namedropping, and twisty David Milch iambic pentameter.

But then I watched more than ten minutes, and all of that– all of it– gradually tapered off. Don’t be mistaken, the movie has issues, but I ended up not hating it like I expected.

The titular Juno (Ellen Page) is a precocious 16-year-old proto-hipstrix who discovers she’s pregnant after deflowering her close friend and maybe-boyfriend Pauly Bleeker (Michael Cera). Dissuaded from having an abortion because of the general ambience of the clinic (?), she decides to give the baby up for adoption to thirtysomething couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). Juno bonds with Mark due to their mutual interest in music and film, leading Mark to revisit his own youth and question whether he’s ready to become a father.

Juno was notably the debut screenplay of Diablo Cody, whose past as a stripper made her kind of a paternalistic darling of Hollywood. Although her subsequent work become progressively better, the script for Juno feels much like a rough draft (see the first few pages of too-cool-for-school jargon), with certain issues and subplots feeling underdeveloped, particularly the ambivalent relationship between Juno and Bleeker. It’s kinda surprising that this won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps, much like a more recent movie everyone liked but me, people were simply shocked by its originality alone.

At the same time, I don’t think director Jason Reitman totally got what Cody was going for. Juno is far more erudite and pop culture-literate than any teenager with an actual social life– I never knew any 16-year-old to fawn over Dario Argento. So why does a movie about someone who loves punk and hates wimpy music have a soundtrack full of tweer-than-twee Kimya Dawson songs?

Altogether, Juno is a confused and not fully fleshed-out film that, while not inherently bad– there’s nothing offensive or eye-rolling here– is littered with small flakes of obnoxiousness. It’s okay. It’s no classic. I’d rank it about even with another 2007 film that dealt with pregnancy and has aged poorly– Knocked Up.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The soundtrack, the animated opening, the whole hand-drawn aesthetic in general.

Additional Notes

  • Wow, the Kinks were really popular for movie soundtracks in 2007: Hot Fuzz, The Darjeeling Limited, and this all featured multiple songs by them.

  • I continue to enjoy that all pregnancies in fiction coincide perfectly with the school year/network television season.

  • Jason Bateman’s character makes his living writing commercial jingles, a job that basically no longer exists but enjoys unaccountable staying power in film and television.

  • This movie did not have enough of J.K. Simmons as Juno’s father. I’m a sucker for goofy but goodhearted dads. My favorite character from Freaks and Geeks is Harry.

How Did It Do?
Juno came out strong, earning a 94% Fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. Grossing $231.4 million against a $7.5 million budget, it just barely outperformed its spiritual counterpart Knocked Up. The significance of this cannot be underestimated; it premiered at Telluride, but let’s be real, this movie is exactly what you think of when I say “Sundance,” and even Sundance movies that win Oscars aren’t big moneymakers. Juno was a fucking blockbuster.

Naturally, this led to some hilarious attempts at moral panic.

First, Juno became at least the third major motion picture that year to get shoehorned into the American debate over abortion. I don’t usually bring up iMDB reviews here, but even the press at the time highlighted a rash of critics that compared Juno unfavorably to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is exactly as stupid as when John Simon compared Return of the Jedi unfavorably to Tender Mercies: technically correct, but nevertheless idiotic.

Then, rumors spread like wildfire that Juno’s popularity had sent teen pregnancy rates skyrocketing due to the glamorization here. I can’t help but suggest that perhaps teenage girls are not the biggest audience for this movie; or that the type of girls who would really like this movie aren’t at a high risk for pregnancy; or that mentally competent teenagers would willfully impregnate themselves; or that they would do it as a fashion statement; or that a movie about a teenage girl who contemplates abortion, gives up a baby she can’t take care of, and ruins a marriage doesn’t glorify jack shit, but that’s just me. This attitude was more about the ongoing debate over sex education in America than it was about any movie, and statistics demonstrate that teen pregnancy would continue its consistent decline since the advent of birth control, but what’re you gonna do?

Keep in mind, I don’t like this movie, and everything I saw or heard about it at the time made me hate it, but even as a pissy teenager, I never felt the need to invent a case against it, especially when that case existed to make me look stupid for being young.

Sorry, I got off track. Where were we? Right, awards!

I don’t know why, but Juno just clicked with the Academy in a way that simply suggests “right time, right place.” It had an aesthetic that was just becoming mainstream, it didn’t cover a whole lot of new ground, but the cast was fantastic, Ellen Page was immediately singled out as a rising star, so of course she got nominated for Best Lead Actress. Juno was also nominated for Best Picture, best Director, and won Best Original Screenplay. Diablo Cody is a great screenwriter, but she wasn’t a great screenwriter yet. You can sense her writing improving just over the course of the movie, and I’m glad she got her opportunity, but I can’t help but suspect that the Academy was moved to award out of condescension over the fact that Cody had once worked as a stripper, which isn’t unusual but which she had previously written about, and which was heavily publicized in the lead-up to the awards.

Nonetheless, Cody improved; I hesitate to suggest a more clear trajectory than hers. Director Jason Reitman is another story. He’s teamed up with Cody since, and it’s hard to reach new heights when your directorial debut is Thank You for Smoking, but it’s hard to get a sense of him as a filmmaker. He’s the Donna Lewis of directors: his movies aren’t like anyone else’s, but they’re also kinda like everyone else’s. Juno is very much in that vein.

Next Time: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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) 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 at 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