Chapter 27 (2007)


Chapter 27
Dir. J.P. Schaefer
Premiered at Sundance January 25, 2007

When first-time filmmaker J.P. Schaefer, Chapter 27 was a bold move, and bound to leave an impact. Inspired by a series of interviews with Mark David Chapman, the crazed fan who assassinated former Beatle John Lennon, the film attempts to find insight into the mind of one of recent history’s most famous assassins. There’s only one problem: if the movie is any indication, Mark David Chapman is not interesting.

It doesn’t help that Chapman is played by Jared Leto, the former teen heartthrob, erstwhile screamo frontman, and future notoriously pretentious Oscar-winner. With Leto in literally every scene, he has unlimited time to show off, playing Chapman in a croaking sing-song voice that recalls Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending as he embarks on a three-day jaunt to New York City to re-enact the plot of Catcher in the Rye, followed by meeting and killing John Lennon outside his apartment building. This is not Chapman’s first attempt to catch the man, and his obsession more-or-less conforms to Donald Glover’s assessment that crazy men always want to kill people they love in order to own them.

That’s a reasonable angle for the film to take, but it doesn’t justify the laser focus on Chapman, which creates other problems as well. Aside from a fellow fan with oddly clunky dialogue (Lindsay Lohan) and a curiously self-aware paparazzo (Judah Friedlander), the film consists almost entirely of endless, repetitive monologues by Chapman, intercut with stock footage and non-sequitur bits of other scenes in a vain attempt to hide the fact that there’s nothing to look at. Undermining his own ambitions as a screenwriter and a director, J.P. Schaefer seems to think that the mere idea of a film about Mark David Chapman would be interesting in itself, and accordingly comes off as smug and lazy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The involvement of Lindsay Lohan. In the mid-2000s, she was everywhere, making a huge effort to escape her child-actress fame and take on more diverse roles, such as this and Robert Altman’s swan song A Prairie Home Companion. By the end of 2007, she would be a national punchline. We’ll get to how that happened later, but it’s relevant to this review because…

How Did It Do?
Chapter 27 wasn’t released in commercial theaters until March 2008, after getting mostly disastrous reviews in the festival circuit (18% fresh on RottenTomatoes), and long after Lohan’s modest involvement had become a liability. In a rare instance of a movie being distributed independently as well as produced independently, Canadian outfit Peace Arch Entertainment released the film into just 11 theaters, making less than $200,000 globally. Peace Arch went under in 2013, and J.P. Schaefer never directed another film.

Next Time: Epic Movie


King of California (2007)


King of California
Dir. Mike Cahill
Premiered at Sundance January 24, 2007

In the early 17th Century, the Spanish priest and mathematician Juan Florismarte Torres led an expedition through Alta California, then thought to be an island. Along the Santa Clara River, his company was attacked by the native Tataviam Indians, and his cache of gold was lost.

The story isn’t true. The Spanish didn’t explore California by land for nearly another 150 years. But if you drive away from Los Angeles in every direction, you will come across little valleys, farms, a hint of the motherland that once was, being systematically anglicized, paved, and forgotten. It is into this world that King of California begins.

Abandoned by her mother, teen Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) picks up her father Charlie (Michael Douglas) from a mental institution where he has been held over a year for bipolar disorder. Charlie’s world has changed; in just a couple years, the family farm has been transformed into an anachronism surrounded by lifeless, remote bedroom communities, all with rambling, nonsensical Spanish names. Miranda has dropped out of school to support herself, and now must support him. And he has a dream: to discover the gold that Fr. Torres lost.

Miranda, the realist, has always doubted Charlie’s flights of fancy, dismissing them as manic episodes. But over and over, his deductions and predictions prove right, bringing her into the hunt for buried treasure… buried under a Costco.

California Nationalism, at least in its present incarnation, is too young to have played a factor in the writing of King of California, but writer-director Mike Cahill clearly knows his stuff, and has a point to make. At one point, a ten-year-old Miranda is obliged to build a model of one of the Spanish Missions dotting the landscape, a rite of passage for all fourth graders.* Charlie’s awareness of the country’s dark, troubled, and decidedly non-Anglophone heritage is rejected and ignored by others. And his beard is cleverly groomed in the style of a Spanish conquistador. He is a man refusing to let go of the past, and although his means may be dubious, he is ultimately moral for doing so.

Although the film’s score often goes too far into whimsy, King of California is an unconventionally beautiful look at my home state at a low point in its character. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to see Michael Douglas outside his usual cold-blooded bastard persona– this is the most charming he has ever been, and it’s worth seeing just for that.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
How much has changed indeed. The dense, remote, rural clusters of prefabricated homes in which the film is set are known as exurbs, and were popular among lower-middle-class commuters in the 1990s and 2000s. Just as the film came out, however, the price of gas skyrocketed to the point that it became cheaper to live in the inner city. People got rid of their cars, the values of the houses collapsed, and most became underwater while many others were never lived in, and to this day sit abandoned. The bond market crashed, and then the stock market crashed, and then the global economy crashed. And here we are.

Additional Notes
*The exception being me, who, despite being a devotee of Californio history, had a teacher who had spent her whole life in Georgia until that year and knew nothing of the land. Technically nobody in my class should’ve gone on to fifth grade because of that.

King of California is the only writing or directing credit for novelist Mike Cahill, an elusive figure who has the shortest iMDB page I have ever seen, and allegedly had wanted to make the film as early as 1980 (confusingly, since there is also a much more prolific filmmaker of the same name). For that reason, expect to eventually see this film highlighted again as part of Zack Clopton’s “No Encores.”

How Did It Do?
King of California was a total flop, grossing $1 million against a $10 million budget, and received a 63% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

In 2007, many dismissed the film as a bundle of indie quirk; in 2017, however, it makes a creepy amount of sense as a piece of nationalist cinema. And just as San Diego, the oldest city in California, was rebuilt in the 20th Century to look even older than it really was, King of California evokes a bigger, older, more impressive portrait of the country it is unknowingly making the case for. With over a quarter of Californians now favoring independence from the United States, I wonder where Cahill stands.

Next Time: Chapter 27

Son of Rambow (2007)


Son of Rambow
Dir. Garth Jennings
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

Anyone who wants to prove the existence of Carl Jung’s fabled collective unconscious has no further to look than cinema’s tendency toward micro-genres. Every once in a while, a series of films come out with very similar premises. These particular instances are never the type big, successful blockbusters that inspire imitators, and they’re made too close together to be following each other’s lead, yet there they are. People just come up with the same ideas at the same time.

The 2000s gave us a couple of these. Toward the beginning of the decade were Admissions Comedies; movies about young people attempting to get into a university or pay their tuition through some sort of misdeed (Orange County, Stealing Harvard, The Perfect Score, Accepted). Then there was the truly bizarre trend of ugly, borderline-unwatchable action movies that were also nonsenical, pretentious political manifestos, all of which flopped (Southland Tales, Smokin’ Aces, War, Inc.).

Son of Rambow, as far as I can tell, was the first of another notable micro-trend the amateur-filmmaking genre. While there’s never a shortage of new movies about making movies, a small selection of movies in the late 2000s (Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, Super 8) decided instead to focus on the relationship between movies and ambitious outsiders who love them– which at least runs less of a risk of alienating audiences with Hollywood insider talk. And while it was a bit weird to get these all at once, it worked out a hell of a lot better than the political action movies did.

The film begins with Will (Bill Milner), a child being raised by a single mother (Jessica Stevenson) in some sort of hardline religious movement in the early 1980s. At school, he gets in a fight with incorrigible bad boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter). The child of absentee parents living in an old folks’ home with his bullying brother (Ed Westwick), Carter quickly cons Will into giving up his late father’s wristwatch, and then into helping make a movie to win a national youth filmmaking contest. Because of his religious upbringing, Will has never watched a movie before, but once exposed to Carter’s pirated copy of First Blood, a childhood’s worth of pent-up creative yearning bursts forth, and the two become genuine friends.

After a long period of shooting, Will and Carter’s efforts attract the attention of their classmates, as well as the Prince-styled French exchange student with whom the entire student body is obsessed. But the rapidly expanding scope of their production drives a wedge between Will and Carter and threatens both of their home lives.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like if Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapted Stand By Me, this’ll give you a pretty good idea. That’s not always an asset. One of the pleasures of movies about filmmaking is that it enables the viewer to directly look into the artist’s imagination, which Son of Rambow does to the fullest. However, there’s not enough of a visual distinction between Will’s artistic visions and his everyday life, especially early on with questionably fake-looking stunts and effects and The Gods Must Be Crazy-type fast-motion.

I also wish the religion thing had been explained better. While the Brotherhood’s cultish disdain for media and distinctly Soviet style of dress is somewhat exoticized, the lack of explanation for who they are suggests that the viewer is supposed to just know. (They’re Plymouth Brethren, which I had to look up and had never heard of before).

But these are minor issues; the unflinchingly chaotic friendship between Will and Carter anchors the film wonderfully. Finally, Sundance 2007 has provided a movie for me to truly like. However, the best is yet to come.

Additional Notes
It’s a very minor thing, but the kids actually appear to be middle school-aged, by which I mean the girls are way taller than the boys. You never see that in live-action film, and you can’t help but appreciate the commitment to authenticity.

How Did It Do?
Son of Rambow spent over a year in the festival circuit before finally being released in May 2008, shortly after an ill-fated attempt to revive the Rambo franchise itself. Grossing $10.9 million against a $6.5 million budget, Son did virtually no business except in its native UK, where it was a relative hit, spending two weeks at #2 in the box office. While it didn’t make it’s money back, it gave a boost in prestige to director Garth Jennings, who had come and gone from Hollywood after his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bombed, eventually returning for Illumination’s 2016 film Sing.

Next Time: King of California

No End in Sight (2007)


No End in Sight
Dir. Charles Ferguson
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, violating international law. When the US took the initiative by pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, no expense was spared: the military had its biggest mobilization since World War II. President George H.W. Bush insisted “this will not be another Vietnam.” And he kept that promise.

But if it’s true that our leaders are always fighting the last war, God forbid an easy victory. That is the lesson, and the only lesson, of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight.

Covering the willful failure of US forces to prepare properly for an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, No End in Sight largely glosses over the reasoning behind the war. While discussing the failures of intelligence– possibly deliberate– that led to the war happening is a legitimate discussion, it was also the only discussion the culture at large was having, particularly in the mid-2000s because of a really complicated scandal that I won’t bother trying to explain. And as most people who were against the war in Iraq were not pacifists, its bears analyzing the profound arrogance that led us, by the time of this documentary’s release, into the very nadir of one of America’s greatest military disasters.

As Ferguson interviews Iraqi civilians, combat veterans, policy experts, and administrators, most notably former Deputy Secretary of State (and not actor) Richard Armitage, a portrait of the Bush administration’s thought process emerges that is both embarrassing and terrifying. Plans had been made for the Iraq War since the election. It’s a testament to the administration’s laser focus on somehow engineering the Iraq War to be the defining struggle of a new generation, as if such things can be scheduled. In a matter of weeks, the planners assured, postwar Iraq would be harmonious, pro-America, led by Iraqi exile and notorious fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and free of US combat troops.

And it was going to be awesome. It would be fought as cheaply as possible, using a fraction of the troops actually needed, with no armor, no extra batteries, no spare tires, no extra water. None of the people in the war planning trust had served in combat, most spoke no Arabic and had never been to the Middle East, and many still refused to visit. Never since Vietnam had US policymakers been so sure of success in a war purely on the grounds that they were Americans, and thus winners.

When the total absence of adequate troops enabled order to break down in the streets of Iraq, the official US policy was that the war was over, and any claims to the contrary were bad for morale. The film’s subjects, people who understood Iraq, were rebuffed. The White House refused to read any serious analysis and dismissed any serious consideration as naysaying and bad for morale.

No End in Sight holds up decently as a historical document. If you want to do this done wrong, dated, and incoherent, watch Fahrenheit 9/11. This is the adult version. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, though, it consists of a lot of in-the-moment fury, and as a result gets competitive. For every paragraph I wrote above, the film has four or five people say the same thing over and over. Furthermore, the film offers little to no insight into the political culture that refused to hear any bad news, and while Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to participate in the film, their involvement wasn’t necessary for the PBS newsmagazine Frontline to do an excellent exposé on them around the same time. Frontline seems more like where this movie belongs. And hey, I love TV documentaries, I discovered the entire medium through television, but this is not a visual presentation worthy of the Sundance Film Festival.

How Did It Do?
No End in Sight was picked up by Magnolia, who released the film into theaters in July 2007, where it earned $1.4 million, a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and an Academy Award nomination for best Documentary Feature. The film made a lot of year-end top-ten lists, and while the critical enthusiasm for the film was understandable at the time, this is a little extreme. Eleven movies in, it’s not at all clear that 2007 was a great movie year, but we’re getting there. No End in Sight isn’t even the best movie of this rather mediocre Sundance; it’s not coming close to my year-end faves.

Next Time: Son of Rambow

Waitress (2007)


Dir. Adrienne Shelly
Premiered at Sundance January 21, 2007

Waitress is the third and final feature from director Adrienne Shelly, who sadly never lived to see it released; in November 2006, she was murdered by a disgruntled and likely psychotic construction worker. Months later, the film was the toast of Sundance and became an unlikely swan song for a cinematic talent cut tragically short. So how does it hold up?

Keri Russell stars as Jenna Hunterson, a waitress and pastry chef savant who plans to win a pie contest and start a new life far away from her abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto). When she becomes pregnant, however, her plans unravel, and she quickly falls under the spell of her awkward but charming– and married– obstetrician (Nathan Fillion).

The weakest link in the story itself is husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), whose cartoonish villainy resembles a redneck version of Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers. It’s unpleasant and out of place. It may be realistic, but just because something is true to life does not make it appropriate for the story being told, especially when everything else in the film, from its lo-fi soundtrack to its overabundance of small-town quirk, is a little too cute. Consider how innocently Waitress depicts the discomfortingly pernicious love interest (Eddie Jemison) of one of Jenna’s coworkers (Shelly), which only puts Earl’s characterization into deeper contrast.

Nonetheless, Shelly’s distinctive visual style elevates the film, as does the natural chemistry between Russell and Fillion. In addition, Andy Griffith is a joyful presence as the finicky, sarcastic owner of the restaurant where Jenna works. Overall, the film is okay.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film nearly drowns in 2000s indie tropes. I could elaborate, but it would just be a repetition of my remarks on several of the other Sundance movies.

How Did It Do?
Waitress, the sole posthumous release at Sundance, was picked up by Fox Searchlight and received a wide release in May, grossing $22 million against a $1.5 million budget. Critics were mostly glowing, earning it an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Keith Phipps of the A.V. Club was notably cooler towards the film, but praised Shelly’s sadly wasted potential, raising the uncomfortable possibility that the movie received higher-than-usual critical approval due to her murder. In any case, Waitress was adapted into a musical in 2015, which made it to Broadway the following year.

Next Time: No End in Sight

Once (2007)


Dir. John Carney
Premiered at Sundance January 20, 2007

A movie musical with an original story and original music? They spoil us.

In Dublin, an anonymous, heartbroken vacuum repairman (Glen Hansard) doubles as a street musician; playing standards for tourists by day and original compositions for his lonely father by night. His skills as a songwriter attract the interest of a much younger Czech migrant (Marketa Irglova) who is also musically talented. When Hansard discovers that she has an estranged husband and young daughter, he quickly decides to reunite with his ex-girlfriend in London, but not before recording an album with his new friend, imagining what could have been.

In reviewing and ranking these films, I’ve tried to balance my judgment between objective filmmaking and personal taste. With Once, I find myself in a dilemma. Nothing is wrong with the movie; it’s heartfelt, honest, well-acted, and the music is terrific– but none of it is really my cup of tea. At worst, I thought it could’ve been a little more visually interesting; this almost reminds me of mumblecore. Honestly, I’m probably going to forget I saw this film.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
I’ve never been to Ireland, but from what I’ve seen and heard, this is a pretty good portrait of Dublin during the Celtic Tiger era.

Additional Notes
Apparently, Cillian Murphy was considered for Glen Hansard’s part, which seems crazy.

How Did It Do?
Once grossed $23.3 million against a $150,000 budget. It received a 97% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, made at least 36 published top ten lists at the end of the year, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (which is totally fair). I just don’t get it.

Next Time: Year of the Dog

War/Dance (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Once


Teeth (2007)


Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: War/Dance


The Savages (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Teeth

Rocket Science (2007)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: The Savages