Man From Plains (2007)

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Man from Plains
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Premiered at Venice September 7, 2007

Once upon a time, someone who had never been to the United States asked me to explain a joke she’d seen on The Simpsons, in which Jimmy Carter was sarcastically labeled “history’s greatest monster.” She didn’t get it. “Was Jimmy Carter really that horrible?” she asked, “or is the joke that he was really great?”

I understand her confusion; the Carter presidency is an aberration with few historical parallels. Much as people in right-wing media might wishfully characterize America’s 39th President as a monstrous lunatic, nobody can say it with conviction: the problem with Carter is that he was genuinely too good to be President, an unbending moralist unwilling to perform the sins required of effective leaders. As a President, he was a naïve fool and rightfully disliked for it; but as an ordinary man, he’s beloved, a living facet of America’s proud political heritage.

Most of the time.

In Jonathan Demme’s Man from Plains, Carter’s good intentions clash once more with the practicalities of leadership as he promotes his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, the subject of immediate controversy by its very title. After joining the former Commander-in-Chief at an endearing Thanksgiving potlock in Plains, Georgia, Demme follows him on a grueling press tour all around the US to be interviewed by just about everyone who’d have him, including both Al-Jazeera and the Israeli Broadcast Authority.

Carter makes no secret of having chosen the book’s title as a deliberate provocation– in fact, he never shuts up about it– but when he’s accused of misrepresenting events he writes about, or plagiarizing maps from a book by former diplomat Dennis Ross, he avoids the issue. To be sure, not all of this is under Carter’s control; his debate with a group of Arizona rabbis was unable to be filmed for example. Yet Carter creates his own problems when, for example, he refuses to debate Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz over the content of the book. This last instance is perhaps the most bizarre, flying in the face of Carter’s own stated intentions to start a debate.

Knowing that Jimmy Carter is a genuinely good person who has built a lot of goodwill– at one point detouring to New Orleans so he can help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina– I cannot hate the man. And I don’t believe he is an enemy of Israel or of peace, however offensively or overoptimistically he may frame the terms. But watching him self-victimize whenever he’s confronted is unsettling to say the least, and may provide an unintended insight into the failings of his presidency.

I worked hard not to judge this movie (or any movie) by its politics, or whatever I infer its politics may be. But the film as presented left me scratching my head. Jonathan Demme, a great documentarian, surely chose to make this film in an attempt to cash in on the controversy at its center, yet Man From Plains never really goes there. Like Carter, Demme evades, electing only to show critics in either the worst possible light or unmask them as secret admirers of the former President. He treats politics like he does the performers in his concert movies, and in so doing deprives the film in question of any reason to exist.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carter appears on The Tonight Show the same night as Panic! At the Disco.

Among Carter’s many, many interviewers are three men who have since withdrawn from public life due to sexual harassment allegations within the last four months: Charlie Rose, Al Franken, and Tavis Smiley. What’s more, Smiley glowingly compares Carter to Bill Cosby as a man trying to make a difference in old age.

How Did It Do?
Man from Plains was gleefully received by critics, earning a 79% rating on RottenTomatoes. Said critics may also have been the only people to see it in theaters, as it grossed a miniscule $119,263.

Next Time: My Winnipeg

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12 (2007)

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12
Dir. Nikita Mikhalov
Premiered at Venice September 7, 2007

Add 12 Angry Men to the list of classic films I’ve had to watch in order to make sense of what I’m reviewing. 1957’s 12 Angry Men is a classic of cinema, a tight, minimalistic exploration of justice, prejudice, and human fallibility that remains fresh today. But it’s also a distinctly American (or at least English) style of justice, and thus a ripe source for social commentary in cultures with a less rigid tradition. Enter 2007 and what may be called the salad days of Putin’s Russia, from which Soviet cinema vet Nikita Mikhalov birthed 12.

The case is as follows: a Chechen teen stands accused of murdering his adopted father, an ethnic Russian and decorated officer in the Chechen Wars. While the boy flashes back to his childhood during said wars and how he came to be adopted, All the jurors but one (Sergey Makovetskiy) naturally vote to convict, and just as in the original, the one holdout probes the motivations of the other jurors into revealing their own prejudices, gradually winning them over.

Despite adhering very closely to its source material, 12 is the most emphatically foreign film of this project for what it adds. 2007 Moscow is not 1957 New York, a fact emphasized by the weather: rather than the hottest day of the year, as in the original, it’s the coldest. Decades of administrative decay and corruption have forced them to hash out the verdict in a school gym with a dangerous, ad hoc heating system that has been left in use for forty years. And the boy’s claim that he saw his father killed by hired thugs working for the owner of his apartment building is initially dismissed but well within the realm of possibility, which many of the jurors can testify from shady dealings of their own; concluding in an unexpectedly thrilling final act.

Of all the films I’ve had to review for this project, 12 feels the most foreign, not for its worldview but for its style, and this may be an impediment to many would-be fans. The movie is far longer and draggier than necessary and is sprinkled with random digressions into 1920s-style expressionist montage for no apparent reason except perhaps to remind us that yes, this is a Russian movie. On the other hand, it’s gloriously cynical and unexpectedly badass.

In other words, 12 is exactly what you would expect from a Russian remake of 12 Angry Men, and much like the jurors themselves, I give it a cautious thumbs-up.

How Did It Do?
12 won the coveted Golden Lion at Venice and went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It also received a healthy 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Nevertheless, the film grossed only $7.3 million worldwide, almost all of it in Russia. It wasn’t released in US theaters until 2009, where it grossed just $125,120 in box office receipts. What’s more, many critics close to Russian politics assailed the film as being supportive of Putin, who himself was reportedly moved to tears by the picture. The reason for this is that one of the characters is revealed to be a righteous former officer of the KGB– one of two festival releases in the summer of 2007 to feature this twist. But aside from this uncharacteristic nod to Russian patriotism, I fail in 2017 to see this as pro-kleptocracy by any means.

Much as Nightwatching was intended to commemorate the 400th birthday of Rembrandt van Rijn, 12 commemorated the 50th birthday 12 Angry Men. 12 Angry Men was the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, whose final film premiered at Venice the very same day…

Next Time: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Nightwatching (2007)

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Nightwatching
Dir. Peter Greenaway
Premiered at Venice September 6, 2007

British-born director Peter Greenaway is a true visionary, a man whose influences reach beyond the confines of cinema to elevate middlebrow prestige films into forward-thinking art. One other hand, his fundamentalist approach has a tendency to baffle; a fearsome rebuke to the fanboy fallacy that understanding a filmmaker’s intent equates to appreciating the end product.

And yet, just by compelling me to write about him, he is succeeding. Greenaway has made a career not only of expanding the vocabulary of his chosen medium, but getting people to think critically about visual art in an uncaring, text-based civilization. At no time were these aims laid more bare than in 2006, when his adopted Netherlands invited him to make a film commemorating the 400th birthday of Dutch painter Rembrandt von Rijn (he fell behind schedule).

But if you were expecting a straightforward docudrama about the life of the artist, Greenaway’s patrons almost certainly weren’t. Instead, Greenaway posits a provocative fanfiction, a surreal and somewhat tacky conspiracy thriller.

After eighty years of war, the Dutch Republic’s independence has finally been recognized by Spain. Newly freed up and flowing with cash from a burgeoning colonial empire and stock market, the great Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is at the peak of his wealth and prestige even as his rather dark artistic style begins to fall out of fashion. Accordingly, the film is sumptuously minimal in its lighting (but not underlit, purveyors of grit take note).

But not all is well. Following complications from the birth of their son, Rembrandt’s wife (Eva Birthistle) is dying. He’s visited by a supposed angel (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), the daughter of his patron Rombout Kemp (Christopher Britton), who reveals that the man is running a child brothel out of an orphanage. And after being commissioned by the Amsterdam militia to paint a group portrait– what will later become known as The Night Watch– he discovers a conspiracy to murder within its ranks, and seeks to immortalize their crimes through clever hints within the painting.

Whatever he may say about expanding horizons as a director, Greenaway’s aversion to taking inspiration from other films isn’t total; Rembrandt’s own breaking of the fourth wall is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, which was released at the time of this film’s development and itself pays homage to Greenaway’s own The Draughtsman’s Contract (about which more later). The similarities in overall concept to The Da Vinci Code are similarly telling, the foremost evidence of when the film was completed.

And Nightwatching is a difficult film. It’s just too much of everything to grab onto as a viewer: too unpleasant in its subject matter to bask in, to abstract to shock or enliven, too complicated to follow, and (though it tries) too spare and draggy to succeed in its mission to engage the audience with Rembrandt’s body of work. It’s almost exploitative.

How Did It Do?
I could find no information regarding Nightwatching’s financial fortunes, though it notably received no general release in the United States. It did however receive a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with Trevor Johnston of TimeOut proclaiming it one of Greenaway’s best films.

Apparently unsatisfied with his presentation in the film, Greenaway returned to his pet conspiracy amusement the following year with the film essay Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which he lays out the plot more coherently than this movie ever could, if still failing to entertain.

Next Time: 12

I’m Not There (2007)

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I’m Not There
Dir. Todd Haynes
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007

Right before the advent of Netflix, my mom went through this phase where she would go to Blockbuster and rent the weirdest, most niche DVDs she could find; and one of them was called Palindromes. I’ll spare you the details; look it up if you’re curious, it’s one of those movies that make you wonder in retrospect if you didn’t just imagine it while suffering from the flu; the relevant point is the main character in that movie is played by many different actors. So when I heard about a new film about Bob Dylan that did the same thing, I assumed that it was being helmed by the director of Palindromes, Todd Solondz, and thought nothing more of it until college.

Some five or six years later, I was taking a class at SF State that might as well have been called Music Theory Masturbation for People Who Couldn’t Get Real Classes Because of Austerity Cuts and Massive Embezzlement, and one of the movies we saw was I’m Not There. I was sick the first day of the showing, so I only saw what I thought was the second half, and it was weird. Really weird. But not necessarily bad. It certainly left an impression. And of course, I found out the director was a different Todd, Todd Haynes, whose film Velvet Goldmine I saw years later still in film school and absolutely loved.

Making Velvet Goldmine, Haynes was unable to get the rights to David Bowie’s life story (legal difficulties with popular musicians is something of a tradition for the filmmaker), and so told a fictionalized history of ‘70s glam rock through symbolic figures. I’m Not There had no such legal trouble with its subject, Bob Dylan, and still took the same route– going even further. The film is a rapid-fire anthology of stories about characters embodying different aspects or periods of Dylan’s life, and even individually they are out of order, and seemingly only half complete.

Even if the vignettes are not chronological, they do follow a sort of chronological order, beginning and ending in roughly the same order, each with a distinct cinematic and musical style:

  • 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), being questioned about the nature of fatalism in a Cold-War era interrogation room that may or may not be purgatory. Rimbaud, as well as the film’s narrator (Kris Kristofferson) serve as something of a greek chorus to the rest of the film.

  • An 11-year-old black troubadour calling himself “Woody Guthrie” (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails and sings for the union cause despite living in 1959, until one of his many hosts (Kim Roberts) tells him to sing about his own times. The character is a reference to Dylan’s early fixation with the real Woody Guthrie, as well as his tendency to tell tall tales about his origins– though his portrayal as a poor black child may owe more to Steve Martin.

  • Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a protest singer who abandons his craft after publicly comparing himself to Lee Harvey Oswald, and years later becomes an evangelical pastor and gospel musician. His story is told through the guise of a PBS-style documentary interviewing his friends and colleagues, such as Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), based on Dylan’s real-life friend and rival Joan Baez.

  • Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a young actor who plays Rollins in a 1965 film, through which he meets and marries French painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and becomes an eventual darling of the New Hollywood. The rise and fall of their relationship coincides with and parallels the American war in Vietnam.

  • Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) most closely parallels Dylan’s public image, especially as depicted in the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. Quinn betrays the folk scene by adopting the electric guitar, futzes around England and America alike, goes to groovy parties, feuds with standoffish British journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), and generally resents his supposed position as standard-bearer of America’s youth.

  • Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), having escaped his supposed execution at the hands of lawman Pat Garrett (also Bruce Greenwood) and settled into an anonymous existence in the small town of Riddle, Missouri. Around the time of World War I, Riddle is set to be destroyed by a newfangled public highway, and Garrett is behind it. This segment was inspired by Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Like any anthology film, certain of these stories and characters will be stronger than others. Back in 2007, most were drawn to Jude Quinn, who is the most readily familiar incarnation of Mr. Dylan as popular culture has chosen to remember him, and it got Cate Blanchett and Oscar nomination. Minnie loved Robbie Clark, despite the character’s tenuous connection to Dylan’s body of work, but that’s mostly a testament to Ledger, whose untimely death cost the world a lifetime of great performances. In what I suspect may be an unpopular opinion, I was personally enthralled with Billy the Kid, not least because I’m actually most familiar with Bob Dylan’s quasi-western 1970s output due to my father’s incessant playing of records like Blood on the Tracks and his work with The Band.

Roger Ebert in his review of this film complained that the movie doesn’t give any further insight into Dylan as a person. I think it does– it’s just deeply cynical. Or perhaps Zen. I’m Not There tells the story of a creative genius who can only express that genius through various personas, Peter Sellers-like.

Yet the director doesn’t judge. With Velvet Goldmine, Haynes seemed to view the abandonment of glam rock as a betrayal of a way of life and thinking in favor of a hollow corporate musical environment. Nearly a decade later, a firmly middle-aged Haynes openly mocks such reactionary fandom, such as that which rejected Dylan’s rock stylings as a betrayal of their values. I’m Not There is all about mortality, hence the involvement of Rimbaud. Yet the film’s fatalism is a hopeful one, one which gives nostalgia its due but recognizes the need and indeed the endless possibilities of change.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The narrator calls Vietnam “the longest war in television history.” No longer.

How Did It Do?
I’m Not There flopped, grossing just $11.7 million against a $20 million budget, but was buoyed by a 77% fresh rating on RT to net an Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett (not to be too cynical, but Oscar voters love gender-bending casting just enough to overlook financial failure).

Bob Dylan himself liked the movie quite a bit, praising Haynes’ boldness and willingness to discard factuality in favor of more imaginative storytelling. And although Haynes has gone on to play very well with critics, this is one experiment he has shown no interest in repeating.

Next Time: Gone Baby Gone

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

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The Darjeeling Limited
Dir. Wes Anderson
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007

On a rainy day in the fall of 1998, my mom and I were stuck at an automotive repair shop in Alhambra, watching Charlie Rose on an ancient RCA with bad reception. Rose was interviewing Bill Murray, who I only knew at the time from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Here, though, he was promoting a much darker film called Rushmore. I knew from the clip they showed that my mom wouldn’t take me to see it, but I was equally shocked by Murray’s appearance. His hair was white, and he had a smarmy mustache. I’d never seen him play a dirtbag before, and was intrigued.

For a long time, Wes Anderson’s movies were praised to high heaven while Anderson himself largely went unnoticed. In the summer of 2005, now aged fifteen, a neighbor recommended I watch Rushmore. I did, and loved it, and went online to see what else the director had done. I was flabbergasted. “The Royal Tenenbaums?” I thought. “The Life Aquatic? He made all of these?” As far as I can tell, everybody else seems to have discovered Wes Anderson at the same moment I did, because when school started again, I would often find my classmates talking about him. And just as soon as everybody knew the name Wes Anderson, he became a joke.

That everybody suddenly woke up and realized who Wes Anderson was in 2005 makes a lot of sense, as Anderson himself was on the cutting edge of a whole new aesthetic, twee, that was just gaining traction around that time. The shock of 9/11 had finally worn off, and the decadent, tailored faux-squalor of the 2000s left many young people subconsciously seeking out an alternative, the kind of dignified, nostalgic, ambiguous anytime in which Anderson’s films seemed to take place. This made Anderson very easy to make fun of; his persistent tropes and trademarks are too numerous to name here, but they’re very easy to identify. At the same time, Anderson’s directorial style began filtering into the mainstream and mixing with those of other indie filmmakers to usher in a new brand of preciousness, and an inevitable backlash. It was into this environment that The Darjeeling Limited was released.

Though I can’t prove it, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Anderson made The Darjeeling Limited as a counterpoint to all that. Developed and shot in under a year on a relative shoestring budget while his main project Fantastic Mr. Fox ran behind schedule, The Darjeeling Limited follows three wealthy ne’er-do-well brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman), avoiding real life until eldest Francis (Wilson), following a failed suicide attempt, invites them on a train trip across India. Ostensibly, the self-appointed patriarch has brought them together to broaden their horizons and find inner peace, but really he’s looking for their mother (Anjelica Houston), who’s been missing since the death of their father a year earlier.

If that makes the film sound plot-heavy, it’s not. For the most part, the brothers struggle with their insecurities and estrangement, all while abusing India’s lax drug laws and alienating everyone they meet– until forced to leave the titular train and find their own way. It’s at this point where the Wes Anderson formula breaks down; the director self-consciously mixes and mashes his stylistic trademarks until the characters and he himself literally let go of their old baggage.

How Did It Do?
The Darjeeling Limited grossed $35 million against a $17.5 million budget, precisely breaking even. The week of this film’s release, Wes Anderson released a short film called “Hotel Chevalier,” which acts as a sort of prequel to the film, to iTunes. Appropriately, it’s not at all necessary to see it in order to enjoy The Darjeeling Limited, but you might get some extra laughs out of it. This minisode format was semi-popular at the time as a little extra for TV shows (most notably Lost and The Office), but Anderson never did it again, and the practice largely died out by the end of the 2000s. Also, in the short, Natalie Portman gets naked. Wes Anderson gets me.

While The Darjeeling Limited is often regarded today as Anderson’s least twee film, it wasn’t received that way at the time. Although it received a solid 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, only Anderson’s prior, initially much more alienating The Life Aquatic had received worse reviews. Many positive critiques referred to The Darjeeling Limited as comfortable and inessential, while the bulk of negative responses found it suffocatingly unadventurous and self-indulgent, the product of a man refusing to evolve at any cost.

Very few, even among its boosters, were able to see the direction that it represented: rather than abandon his signature style, Anderson was taking it in a more worldly, less detached direction. Production on the film completed shortly before star Owen Wilson’s real-life suicide attempt; for many, this may have brought an emotional intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been lacking, and which Anderson has continued to make use of in his more recent, even more beloved films Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Somewhere is an alternate universe where Wes Anderson is much the same as M. Night Shyamalan once was, but it isn’t this one. And The Darjeeling Limited certainly has something to do with that.

Next Time: I’m Not There

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

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In the Valley of Elah
Dir. Paul Haggis
Premiered at Venice September 1, 2007

In December 2007, Claude Brodesser-Akner, host of the NPR show The Business, posited a question: why are big movies about the ongoing War in Iraq failing to find audiences when the Vietnam War had proven such a fruitful breeding ground for box office success?

People wouldn’t shut up about the Vietnam thing. The war had reached a low point by late 2006; rumors of a draft were rampant, and military recruiters desperately got 16-year-olds to sign contracts promising to enlist upon graduation from high school while marketing recruitment to boys as young as 12. And of course, people of an egotistical bent were eager to use the comparison to place themselves prematurely in the canon of history, which is what got us into the war in the first place.

The obvious problem, as Brodesser-Akner gleefully pointed out, was that the Iraq War was the first war in which Hollywood was producing films critical of the conflict contemporaneously. All the great Vietnam movies came out after the war. Like, years after. That war had to become nostalgic before it could be truly mined for pop cultural poignance. Unless you’re making a propaganda film, it’s too easy to get caught up in the moment and make something heavy-handed and instantly dated.

In the Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis’ follow-up to Crash, was viewed by many at the time as a much-needed commentary on the war, as well as a shot at redemption for Haggis himself. It isn’t.

In 2004, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed that his only living son Mike has gone AWOL from base shortly after completing his tour of duty in Iraq. When Hank arrives at the base in New Mexico to look for him, his body is found in the desert: stabbed, dismembered, and burned. Although this kind of killing is a common method for the drug cartels just over the border, Hank refuses to believe that his son was involved in such unsavory activity. A former military policeman with a keener eye than his successors, he teams up with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to uncover the truth.

In the Valley of Elah is a straightforward mystery story, one that admittedly touches on the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq veterans– praised by critics for being the first to do so– and was actually loosely based on a true story. But, as ever, it is obvious where truth ends and Hollywood contrivance begins. Haggis, as director and writer, is compelled to cram the film’s periphery with as many Very Important Issues as he can think of. Detective Saunders (Theron) struggles as a single mother and isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues. The neighboring Drug War in Mexico and abuse of POWs are both touched upon, but to no purpose. Another time, Hank explodes with xenophobic contempt for Mexicans, an outburst that comes out of nowhere and immediately disappears.

In the Valley of Elah is heavy with symbolism, but nothing much to symbolize. The film’s title refers to the location of the Biblical fight between David and Goliath, a story that is referenced twice in the film, but doesn’t relate to the story in any way.* Likewise, the upside-down flag, denoting a national emergency, appears but has nothing to do with the movie except to seem important (as well as to give Hank a Serious Acting Moment that is embarrassingly out of character). To give you an idea of what kind of movie this is, the final shots are overlaid by a tie-in song from Melissa Etheridge.

Altogether, In the Valley of Elah, generally well-received in its own time, has aged terribly, attempting to say too much with too little, and serves as a perfect example of why, with war movies, it’s better to wait.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Although based on a true story from 2004, In the Valley of Elah is distant enough from its source material that there’s no reason to set it in that year, except that it gives Haggis a way to mythologize even the very-recent past. Every scene with a television or radio plays echoes of speeches by George W. Bush in the background. In reality, even during election season, the Iraq War was barely an issue, and would continue to fade into the background until reaching its nadir a couple years later.

Additional Notes
*Haggis’ own explanation for the title is that he saw America’s armed forces as David going up against Goliath in Iraq. This, as critic David Edelstein pointed out at the time, doesn’t make any sense. I think he went with it because it just sounded Very Important.

How Did It Do?
In the Valley of Elah was filmed in West Texas alongside No Country for Old Men, as a result of which the two films share no fewer than 63 cast and crew members, including Jones, Brolin, and one-scene wonder Barry Corbin (incidentally, Tommy Lee Jones is a welcome promise on my screen even in a bad movie, and Corbin will always have a special place in my heart due to his role as Maurice on Northern Exposure).

In many respects, the two films mirror each other. No Country was a typical if exceptionally epic Coen movie that happened to get picked up by awards-guru producer Scott Rudin and win Best Picture; Elah meanwhile was a transparent and shallow stab at political relevancy by a veteran award collector, and got no such consideration, except for Tommy Lee Jones, who was nominated for Elah rather than No Country as a sort of compromise over what constituted a “lead role.” In both films, Jones plays a veteran detective, but in Elah he actually gets to be the elder savior upholding all that is good and just; No Country admires his service, but laughs at the idea of such closure, for him or for anyone.

True to form, In the Valley of Elah underperformed No Country by every metric. Grossing just $29.5 million against a $23 million budget, it failed to recoup marketing costs and charted lower than Nancy Drew.

Nevertheless, such was the thirst within the industry for critiques of the war that it managed to win over the majority of critics, earning a 73% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Dissenting opinions of the time read much the same as mine. More thought-provoking however is the frequency with which positive reviews invoke words like “vital,” “poignant,” and “raw.” When not hedging their bets over the movie’s shortcomings, or marveling at the novelty of addressing PTSD, otherwise sober critics chose to endorse the film foremost for its timeliness, and Haggis, whose departure from and fierce criticism of Scientology has earned him a new measure of respect, should tremble at what they might say today.

In his interview with Paul Haggis, Matt Holzmann optimistically suggested that audiences would warm to movies like Elah once the war was over. In contrast to his otherwise pompous remarks, Haggis played the suggestion down, and he ended up being right. In hindsight, Elah and its contemporaries have only become worse with age, and we’re just getting started.

Next Time: Into the Wild

 

Redacted (2007)

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Redacted
Dir. Brian De Palma
Premiered at Venice August 31, 2007

Whereas most major films of 2007 thus far were produced the previous year, simply owing to how long it takes to make a movie, Brian De Palma’s Redacted was– incredibly– produced over the course of a single month in the spring before premiering at Venice in the summer. To understand why, it’s necessary to discuss two very different events from exactly one year before its release.

First, De Palma’s previous film The Black Dahlia crashed and burned. Part of the same book series as L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia had been in development since the ‘90s, and with one of the great surviving auteurs of Hollywood’s new wave at the helm, it became one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. Unfortunately, the film failed to recoup any of its marketing or even crack the top-100 grossers of the year, while critics mostly derided it as a soulless genre exercise.

De Palma may have seen this coming, because he immediately began development on a project ripped from the headlines: just as The Black Dahlia opened in theaters, legal proceedings had begun against five US soldiers accused of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl and murdering her and her family in the Iraqi town of Mahmudiya. Although little-remembered today among the war crimes of that conflict, the story was catnip to De Palma, whose 1989 Casualties of War had covered similar ground in Vietnam and been a critical triumph, and who probably saw an opportunity to be the first A-list filmmaker to seriously take on the Iraq War at a time when Hollywood insiders (and only Hollywood insiders) were clamoring for it.

Somehow, what he came up with was a mockumentary.

First developed by the likes of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and Christopher Guest, mockumentary originally intended to parody documentary style, but also made for easy comedy by enabling characters to share their exact thoughts and feelings directly with the audience, and thus reached the height of popularity in the 2000s on TV and in film– we’ve already seen it in action this year with Surf’s Up!

But in contrast to its spiritual predecessor the epistolary novel, mockumentary is not an effective means to create drama, and by using the format, Redacted constantly undercuts its own existence. If it’s based on real ongoing events, in a style typically used to document real ongoing events, why didn’t De Palma just make a documentary? There are many answers one might provide, but none of them reflect positively on the director, and one need only watch the movie to understand why it was a terrible idea.

The majority of the film is told from the perspective of “Sally” Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a PFC hoping to edit video footage of his service into a documentary and win a spot in film school. Through his camera, we see the strain placed on his squad as they are forced to spend an extra week in the city of Samarra. Their sergeant (Ty Jones) meets a sudden death, and nerves rattle until some of the men propose going off-base and roughing up a teenage girl who routinely comes through their checkpoint.

If you’re worried about encountering moral ambiguity or character arcs, fear not; for a movie that graphically depicts rape, summary execution, torture, and mutilation, Redacted is bizarrely averse to offending perceived viewer sensibilities when it comes to characterization: the good soldiers are never morally in question, and the bad soldiers are cartoon villains from start to finish. One of the antagonists (Daniel Stewart Sherman) is so stupid he doesn’t know what Arabic is, and the instigator (Patrick Carroll) wears a skull bandanna on his head and a massive crucifix tucked into his vest, and owns a collection of Confederate memorabilia that serves as the focus of any shot in which it appears. He also drops the word “sand n****r” about thirty times. Good thing he’s such an obvious psychopath, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known that war crimes are bad.

Placing this already-compromised narrative within the “gritty” documentary format places this film within a narrative Uncanny Valley: the more De Palma strains to make this feel real, the more blatant the unreality becomes. The men don’t talk as if they’re in a documentary. Sure, the actors’ tone of voice is appropriately off-the-cuff, but the dialogue itself is more reminiscent of a phoned-in term paper. Everyone always says what they’re thinking, carefully avoiding any repetition of words or phrases, and about half of what is echoes familiar talking points.

Adding to the confusion, Redacted isn’t just a mockumentary, but several rolled into one: interspersed with the supposed footage from Sally’s camera is b-roll from a contemporaneous yet never-remarked-upon French production, Arabic-language “news” footage, staged YouTube clips and Skype chats, and most inexplicable of all US Army security camera records. Assuming that the whole is meant to be a single piece in-universe, how the hell did the filmmaker get ahold of that?

As the film races to a merciful end, a random woman with a voice similar to Ellen Page offers a screaming YouTube tirade to the effect that what we have witnessed is so horrific that “not even liberal Hollywood will touch it.” And yet here’s Brian De Palma touching it! I mean, look, he’s really going there! Isn’t he fucking brave!? How better to pre-emptively defend the movie against the scorn of critics and the indifference of audiences? Don’t like the movie? “That’s just what they want you to think!” Congratulations, Redacted, you fucking win. Here’s nothing.

Fuck this movie. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. Fuck the impetus behind it, fuck the sense of moral superiority that hovers over every haranguing moment, fuck the way it takes the easy way out at every turn, fuck the moronic attempts to insert a fucking sitcom gimmick to be relevant and kewl, fuck the implication that mass murder and gang rape are bad because bad people do it, fuck the implication that that’s the only thing our dumb asses will understand, and fuck the very idea that this vapid, bullying piece of shit would be meaningful to anyone.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film is co-produced by HDNet, an obscure cable television most famous for being the only network that would hire former CBS anchor Dan Rather after the Killian Documents Controversy. A facsimile of YouTube appears repeatedly in all its awkwardly-textured first-generation glory.

The Las Vegas tourist slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” (superfluous comma not mine) is used to defend the cover-up.

How Did It Do?
Redacted got what it deserved, earning just $782,102 against a $5 million budget– and just $65,388 in its native United States. Critics were starkly divided, earning it a 45% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes– reading the negative ones was deeply cathartic after having to sit through the picture– and the film was not considered for any awards but the Silver Lion it unaccountably won at Venice upon its debut.

But the story continues. First, while Redacted crows at the inability to get justice for the atrocity committed, Kurt Loder of MTV was quick to point out that all of the Mahmoudiya killers were being prosecuted at the time– and were ultimately all convicted– making De Palma’s self-congratulation ring all the more hollow.

Then, US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) filed an official complaint to the MPAA that the movie was anti-military– an action unprecedented since the McCarthy era. Even more unprecedented was that critic Kyle Smith, a conservative Republican who opposed Redacted’s politics, then became the movie’s biggest defender.

And in case you needed another reason not to make a mockumentary drama, a man in Germany in 2011 saw by clips of the film on YouTube, believing them to be actual documentary footage, and was inspired to shoot several US Airmen stationed in Frankfurt.

Next Time: Encounters at the End of the World

Michael Clayton (2007)

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Michael Clayton
Dir. Tony GilroyPremiered at Venice August 31, 2007

Originally when I came up with this project, I had intended to focus on the true classics of 2007, the movies that made it the best year ever. But it seemed too limiting. As someone interested in history, I felt that a broader overview of the year’s cinematic output would highlight elements of that time period to light that might otherwise be forgotten.

Like the deplorable The Invasion, Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut and passion project Michael Clayton– a title I will never stop confusing with Michael Collins– captures a certain period-specific type of fear. Two in fact: one legitimate and widely understood, one that has aged terribly.

The titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a mysterious character; a former prosecutor who left his up-and-coming position to work as a fixer (or “janitor” in the lingo of the film) for a massive corporate law firm. Typically, he covers the company’s ass, but things begin to spiral out of control when he’s sent to Wisconsin to do damage control after his colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a manic-depressive breakdown during a deposition.

It turns out Arthur’s freakout may not just be mental– the company he’s representing, a Monsanto stand-in called United Northfield, is being sued for manufacturing a weed killer that’s believed to be a prolific carcinogen. Arthur has found further evidence that the product is not only cancerous to the farmers using it, but to the consumers of the food they produce. He can’t take it anymore, leaves the case, and U-North’s general counsel (Tilda Swinton) will stop at nothing to keep this new evidence from coming to light.

George Clooney does a great job, of course. Tom Wilkinson does to, and so do most of the actors. But something isn’t right. Watching Michael Clayton, I was reminded most strongly of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate; wherein the spectre of Communism is misguidedly replaced with paranoia of a corporate enemy within. Let’s face it: most of Hollywood is pretty liberal, especially the kind of people who produce prestige movies like this. In a post-Bush, post-Great Recession, post-The Informant! world, the mutual understanding that giant corporations are greedy, amoral, and endanger our health is taken for granted. I’m not saying it wasn’t understood in the 2000s, but in the heady days of Karl Rove’s so-called “permanent majority,” it may have seemed to some that a more concrete threat was needed in order to convey that to the general public.

As a consequence, we get didactic conspiracies of corporate hit men, hunting down the brave souls who can expose the truth and set everyone free. In the real world, such extreme measures aren’t necessary; and to its credit, Michael Clayton ends the film by mocking U-North’s overdoing of the situation; but there’s a reason the film, despite the acclaim of its own time, is probably most remembered from this spoilerrific quote from 30 Rock:

Floyd: I am the Michael Clayton of Cleveland!
Liz: Well I hope your car blows up!

Signs This Movie Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Blackberry. Also, something weird about this: Clayton is stated to have been born in 1959, but he himself says he’s 45. Was this movie, like fellow prestige film In the Valley of Elah, pointlessly set in 2004?

Additional Notes
It eventually pays off, but the first thirty minutes of this film, before the plot really kicks in, feels like an overextended Indiana Jones-style character-establishing prologue.

How Did It Do?
When you think back to the 2007 Oscars, it’s mostly a solid lineup. So imagine my surprise to look back and discover that Michael Clayton received seven nominations that year, more than any other except No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The least of the five films to get a Best Picture nod, it was additionally nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), and its sole win for Best Supporting Actress (Swinton). What’s more, it made a solid $92 million against a lean $25 million budget and a 90% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with no less than Claudia Puig (USA Today), Richard Roeper, and Richard Schickel (Time) declaring it the best film of 2007.

At the time of this writing, I have Michael Clayton ranked 70th.

Next Time: Redacted

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually.

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

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

Next Time: Michael Clayton

Lust, Caution (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Margot at the Wedding