Capsules for 2007

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2007. Includes all the movies of 2007 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Rescue Dawn
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 8/10
Rescue Dawn proves Werner Herzog wasn't finished with the story of his friend and P.O.W. survivalist, Dieter Dengler, which he covered in his documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. On the surface, this new offering is a solid prison-escape movie, set in a makeshift prison camp in the middle of the Laotian jungle. It's filmed with an experienced handle on production, pacing, and characterization, and some of the suspense sequences here are truly gripping. And in the acting department, Christian Bale, as Dengler, has all the bases covered. Dig a little deeper, though, and you can find Herzog's pet themes and concerns, particularly that of man's will to live in the face of an uncaring universe that would sooner kill you than save you. Dengler stays sane and clear-thinking, even as his fellow prisoners are mentally falling apart; his determination is a display of human will at its strongest and his journey is presented without any sentimentalization. Although Rescue Dawn doesn't necessarily register as a whole new experience (this genre is one of cinema's most reliable, after all), one can admire the way Herzog appears to tackle it as if it is. His admiration of Dengler (who passed away six years ago) is made clear by the way he lets his story tell itself; Herzog trusts in the story without furnishing any embellishment, and the result packs a good punch all its own. (added 7/4/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Resident Evil: Extinction
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Rating: 4/10
My previous rantings about the Resident Evil movies had much to do about their fidelity to the spirit/story of the games -- in particular, the second movie veered quite far away from it. The movie franchise then continued in 2007 with the release of Resident Evil: Extinction. At this point, to refer to its relation to the games would be a waste of time -- although the game franchise's own stories and style had evolved into something fairly inconsistent, it did hit an acclaimed high with Resident Evil 4 in 2005. The movie Extinction would therefore not only be released in the last game's afterglow, it would empasize the windening gap between the movies and the games -- the movies are clearly their own entities, never coming anywhere near the qualities of the best games in the series. The movies' stories come from a very different mindset and might actually be better labeled as fan fiction, written by Paul W.S. Anderson for the purposes of showing off his wife, actress Milla Jovovich. Case in point: Extinction resorts to employing a setting that the games themselves have not yet moved to -- the post-apocalypse setting. It's a bad idea mainly because it makes the movie that much less original -- it would compete with memories of Mad Max and any of the numerous existing movies where zombies have taken over the world. Into this landscape lands Alice (Jovovich), now a lone survivor and still endowed with certain superhuman abilities, the better to slash zombies with style and panache. She joins a convoy of other survivors, but she doesn't need them as much as they need her, since she can single-handedly take on a horde of zombies with simply a pair of large knives and look good doing it. As I'd expressed in my reviews of the previous movies, butt-kicking isn't really a main aspect of the games, but it seems to be the primary element the movie series is interested in showcasing. I will admit the production value of this movie is a positive -- the crow attack sequence alone would probably have made Alfred Hitchcock smile -- but there doesn't seem to be much other point to Extinction, with its disposable story and its ever-more-conspicuous lack of any original ideas. (added 9/30/2010)

Saawariya
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: 6/10
Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights" gets the Bollywood treatment in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's lavish Saawariya (translation: "beloved"). Here, the premise is used mainly to illustrate the pitfalls of falling in love at first sight. This may sound somewhat frivolous, but the movie takes advantage of the simplicity of the situation to illustrate more clearly the depths of folly that youthful idealism can fall into. In a way, the experienced viewer could watch this and root for the young potential couple (newcomers Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, no relation) not to get what they each want, hoping instead they learn a valuable life lesson, and the viewer would not be wrong to do so. Part of this may be due to Ranbir Kapoor, as the happy-go-lucky young man, seeming a bit too exuberantly youthful; someone a little less green might've had more of the charisma that comes with experience to make you want to pull for him, but in any case the character is probably more fitting for the story the way it currently is. Saawariya boasts a wondrous (and very blue!) set to enhance the enchanted feel of the tale, but it lacks in the musical numbers department -- it takes half the movie to get to a real showstopper piece, and it's no surprise that Bollywood star Rani Mukherjee anchors it. She and veteran actress Zohra Sehgal highlight what turns out to be a breezy and passably entertaining major Indian musical, the first to be released by a major Hollywood studio (Sony/Columbia Pictures). (added 11/9/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Savages
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Rating: 7/10
By the time a woman innocently greets the titular family with, "You must be the Savages," the double entendre should be unmistakable to viewers. The Savages concerns two adult siblings with separate lives who suddenly find that they must locate a rest home for their ailing ill-tempered father whom they both have reason to abhor. The brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a shielded no-nonsense type who wants to put the man (Philip Bosco) in the easiest place and get it over with; while the sister (Laura Linney), the movie's overt protagonist, finds a different way to reveal her savagery -- at times needy, guilty, selfish, and desperate, she's an aspiring writer in need of real perspective. This acerbic black comedy-drama draws its strength mainly from the complex, familiar character of the sister, as written (and directed) by Tamara Jenkins and played expertly by Linney. It feels like a story told from personal experience, so if it isn't, then give the participants their due credit. What The Savages might lack in scope and size, it makes up for with its honesty, surefootedness, and two more effortless turns by old reliables Hoffman and Linney. (added 11/28/2007version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Seven Swords (2005; released in U.S. on DVD in 2007)
Director: Tsui Hark
Rating: 6/10
You can tell Tsui Hark harbors a lot of sentiment for the ol' wuxia genre, but his Seven Swords might be a case of dramatic oversell. The movie, about seven swordsmen called upon to protect the innocent from rampaging imperial forces, is of epic length but contains, at most, half the depth. It takes too long to get from one brief action scene to the next, and the filler is mostly just that -- multiple subplots involving fickle lovers and old grudges too thinly drawn to be truly engaging. Tsui seems to squander the apparently large production budget by diluting his focus among too many characters while otherwise contentedly aping Zhang Yimou's visual style. There's ambition here in the bigness of the project -- it just lacks tighter control. Tsui's strengths lie mostly in martial arts mayhem, with the final, claustrophobic battle between Donnie Yen and Sun Honglei standing out in particular, but unfortunately it's the film's ponderousness that stays with you after it's done. (added 2/2/2006)

Starting Out in the Evening
Directors: Andrew Wagner
Rating: 7/10
When a pretty young woman (Lauren Ambrose) begins to interview an aging professor/author (Frank Langella) as the subject of her thesis, all kinds of worms are released from their cans. Preconceived notions are formed or refined, then broken; guards are dropped; and everyone involved in this subtle mini-drama, including the professor's daughter (Lili Taylor), gets several weaknesses exposed. The movie is understated and has a literary setting, and anything insightful occurs between the lines, not the least of which involves the idea that everything in life is interpretable, and that self-centered perspectives can be damaging. You've got to at least hand it to a film for being able to say experience/wisdom in life is both meaningful and crippling in the same stroke. Naturally, in a story that centers around about four major characters having different conversations, performances are the key ingredients to its success. Langella is the standout here, and the supporting actors, including Adrian Lester, work well to varying degrees, but are all operating under the veteran's shadow. The movie's main problem may be that it's too soft-spoken for its own good, and it's working within a genre -- the relationship drama -- that often relies on emotional hooks to gain traction. In this sense, Starting Out in the Evening's academic approach, which allows its characters to be themselves and their relationships to crinkle and fold within each other to no obvious end, shows both strength and vulnerability, which rather appropriately reflects its take on people and experience in general. (added 12/28/2007)

Surf's Up
Directors: Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Rating: 5/10
Surf's Up is yet another example of the most common syndrome found among American computer-animated films these days: the technical aspects are lovely, but the story/theme content is nothing to speak of. With the misfortune of following in the footsteps of the superior Happy Feet, this new flick also features penguins, now just starting to wear out their welcome as movie subjects. Still, the visual design of Surf's Up is very nice -- the birds have an appealing cartoon look, and I like the way the animators got creative in giving them distinguishing pattern designs where their black and white feathers meet (to enhance the surfers' island life feel). Also, as water is always the main go-to element for showing off animation skills, Surf's Up takes advantage of the this opportunity. On the downside, the movie is handicapped by the American stigma of cartoons being for kids, so the theme is from a template again (in this case, "winning isn't everything," which was already used by Cars last year -- in fact, the two share a few too many plot similarities for comfort, with Cars winning on more skillful story execution), and the pleasant island atmosphere is punctuated by a lot of lame kiddie jokes, much of them having to with potty humor. Meanwhile, a unique narrative approach yields mixed results -- the movie is "shot" as a mockumentary, which is creative but probably a little too sophisticated for its intended audience. Also, the filmmakers don't quite adhere to their own idea -- too many of the scenes don't come from a documentary angle, from certain action sequences like the requisite roller-coaster scene through the underground slides, to the intimate moments where the main characters are developed and freely converse. An overall hodgepodge of good ideas, bad ideas, and hit-and-miss execution, Surf's Up feels like it had more potential to be a standout than was actually realized. (added 6/8/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Superbad
Director: Greg Mottola
Rating: 7/10
If Seth Rogen has his way, the real "Revenge of the Nerds" will come to pass, where the experiences of our landscape's social rejects pass as the rule and not the exception. Unlike previous teen comedies with which Superbad will be compared, the protagonists here aren't what you'd expect everyday high school kids to be, but they are a part of every high school. In this case, the main characters, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), are apparently surrogates of the writers, Rogen (who also appears as a character) and Evan Goldberg, but in the movie they appear to be id and superego personified as general misfit teens, and quite co-dependent of one another. Their comedic adventure, taking place in one day and night in the how-many-crazy-things-can-happen-in-one-evening mode, is a guided tour of what it's like to live in the crucible of dealing with teenage hormones, impulses, desires, and curiosities while always having your self-esteem put at risk. The best part of all this is how the movie removes attempts at sweetness and sentimentality -- its characters make no apologies for who they are. They just act out, and hilarity ensues. Outside of what feels like a too-conscientious attempt at creating a cult character ("McLovin," played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and a general dismissal of anything resembling reality when it comes to female characters, this is well-written, albeit extremely vulgar, outrageous comedy. The principle actors are exceptionally good, and all social outcasts can live vicariously through McLovin's fantasy-fulfilling subplot. (added 8/17/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Sydney White
Director: Joe Nussbaum
Rating: 5/10
Armed with noble intentions and the endearing comic goofiness of Amanda Bynes, the comedy Sydney White nevertheless fails to be convincing. The movie's gimmick is to model the the titular heroine's freshman year experience on the story of "Snow White," where her fairest-of-them-all rival is a sorority queen, played by Sara Paxton, and the fellows who take her in are the campus outcasts -- you see, the film was almost named "Sydney White and the Seven Dorks" (and each of the seven can even be mapped to Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, etc.). The goal of the movie, in keeping with Bynes's role as the anti-party-princess, is to celebrate geek revolution, where the marginalized groups of students have their day against the oppressive Greek elite. But whether due to lazy writing or the exaggeration of the comedy, the seven dorks are mostly stereotypical, their lifestyles and interests (as usual, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings-centric) more of a parody reflecting what mainstreamers might think nerds are like, rather than what a true geek might know it to be like (this is kind of a surprise, since the director, Joe Nussbaum, got on the map with his short, the geeky "George Lucas in Love"). This mainly hurts the film in that it makes jokes of the people we're ultimately supposed to side with; and, as the story progresses, the dorks and the outsider groups that align with them actually feel more and more like cardboard. We do have Bynes, appealing as usual, but not given much room in the script here to stretch her comedic chops. But here's to Amanda anyway -- she's a young actress who does honest work, and I still look forward to a perfect vehicle for her down the line. (added 9/21/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

La Vie En Rose
Director: Olivier Dahan
Rating: 7/10
The life of the beloved mid-20th century French singer Edith Piaf is summarized in La Vie En Rose as a continuing tragedy, punctuated by momentary personal triumphs through singing and the praise of her voice. In other words, her ability to sing was the only gift given to her; otherwise, her life was wretched. This is as depressing as it sounds. The poor woman endures so many downs here, the few "ups" in her life don't seem to be able to sufficiently counterbalance them. Director Olivier Dahan's approach, which involves a very conventional production quality served up in an unconventional fragmentary narrative, emphasizes his apparent claim that Piaf's miseries were largely propagated by her bullheaded and naive personality, an unfortunate result of her being brought up as something of an undesired burden to her separated parents. In a surprise turn, Marion Cotillard plays Piaf, from young lady to withered old woman, as a force of nature, mostly unaware that she herself is caught in a larger force of nature that dictates her fate -- her talent fuels the whirlwind that surrounds her, and her excessive personality sets up her desperate downward plunges. Watching it is like watching a car crash in super slow motion, seeing each part or passenger get individually crushed or burst. Dahan's film is less an ode or a valentine, more of a spectacle of pity, mainly worth watching for Cotillard's remarkably uncompromised performance. (added 11/25/2007)

Waitress
Director: Adrienne Shelly
Rating: 7/10
Waitress, the late Adrienne Shelly's light comedy, is presented as a modern fairy tale. Set in the South, it follows a pie diner waitress, Jenna (Keri Russell), stuck in a marriage to a lout (Jeremy Sisto) and yearning for escape, only to discover, to her dismay, that she's become pregnant with their child. Much of the humor comes from this dismay, as Jenna determines to have the baby but not be tied down by it; meanwhile, she discovers some emotional relief through an affair with her doctor (Nathan Fillion), which is enacted in a manner that might be best described as "cute." The movie teeters on the possibility of being offensive (No love for a unborn baby? Affairs are condonable? And what's with some of these exaggerated Southern personalities?), but it's on its wavelength for a reason -- its almost-bedtime-story delivery heightens its design as a parable about finding focus and clarity after enduring much chaos and wading through the mud. Although some of its conventions drag it down, the movie is kept afloat by a noticeable sense of humanity behind even the slightest caricatures, and particularly by a charismatic Russell, who makes the show her own. (added 11/25/2007)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Director: Jake Kasdan
Rating: 8/10
Judd Apatow is having quite a year, so why stop while he's ahead? He co-writes Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story with its director, Jake Kasdan, and the result is, yet again, golden. Musician biopics are the target of spoofing this time, with Walk the Line and Ray serving as the main models. Trappings of this genre are ripe for the picking, and Walk Hard nails more than a fair share of them. It later ventures out into further territory until the movie has covered almost all of its title character's entire life. That approach results in parodying a bigger picture than just a movie genre, eventually coasting on the shared insight (brought to light mostly by VH-1 specials) that most really famous musician's lives follow similar trajectories. And having recently watched La Vie en Rose, I can see these stories will always keep coming. In any case, Walk Hard provides a much needed skewering of such films -- at best it may even motivate more viewers to rethink how they want their celebrity life stories served to them. At very best, someone will recognize the good work here by the star of the show, John C. Reilly. This character actor makes good in his comedy headlining debut, taking what is essentially a silly Will Ferrell character and actually lending him some kind of robustness. What's taking so long? Give the man an award already! (added 12/21/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Wild Hogs
Director: Walt Becker
Rating: 3/10
It's City Slickers meets Easy Rider... or something like that. I don't know, maybe it's saying that the dream of Easy Rider is really just that -- a dream (a surprise cameo at the end seems to depressingly confirm this) -- but, no, I'm sure the movie's exactly what it presents itself as: a goofy short-shelf-life comedy about middle-aged guys facing their midlife crises by riding their motorcycles cross country. Hilarity ensues... or not, depending on your comedic tastes. Here we have competitive mugging from Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, and John Travolta (what's William H. Macy doing there, anyway?), a generally throwaway plot complete with deus ex machina, and reliably easy gags involving people driving into objects, crotch shots, bulls chasing and flipping people into the air, and, of course, the straight-male homophobic insecurity jokes, complete with a leering gay cop. Like shooting fish in a barrel, right? I suppose, but it wasn't my cup of tea -- it's delivered with that beer commercial mentality, where if it's loud, unsubtle, and stupid, it's supposedly funny (unlike, say, Talladega Nights, which contains evident satire). Although I'll go ahead and say there were a couple of good jokes here and there involving birds. (added 3/2/2007)

Youth Without Youth
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Rating: 6/10
What kind of movie is Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth? I think it might be called a superhero researcher romance. The film is something of a living paradox -- it's divided in what feels like two unrelated halves, and though experimental, it's filmed in a classic style while ignoring almost all the rules of narrative cinema, yet feeling conventional in overarching theme. I'm of two minds about it -- both annoyed and excited at the same time. Coppola's protagonist is Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an aged pre-WWII professor who, after a freak accident, finds his body young again. This premise alone would've been enticing enough, but we also learn the following about Domic: he's a student of language and hopes to complete his ultimate work by discovering the original language; he lost a true love in the past; he gets superpowers (really!) and the Nazis are after him; and he has this (imaginary?) double who talks to him. Eyebrow raised yet? The second half of the movie then becomes very different from the first, but the story is less interesting -- instead of being science fictional about the possibilities of getting a second chance and experiencing youth with the benefit of wisdom, it becomes a love story (albeit a rather supernatural one). The ending did not agree with me, as it seems to reinforce the hackneyed notions that ethics/heart thwart scientific research and futility is cyclically inescapable, capped off by what looks like an arbitrary ambiguous coda. It's what makes the movie a letdown, despite being initially exciting to watch, with its admittedly lovely and interesting cinematography and its lush, mysterious atmposphere. Youth Without Youth challenges one to keep up, but its destination is disappointingly simplistic. Just the same, I look back on the film with a wry smile, and maybe it'll be worth a revisit one day, if only because it's not easy to find such a similarly odd and intriguing experience. (added 12/14/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Zodiac
Director: David Fincher
Rating: 8/10
Kudos to David Fincher for taking on another project in a genre he's already visited -- the serial killer movie -- and tackling it with an entirely different approach. Zodiac is about a real case emerging from 1960's northern California, and it follows three characters who investigate it for different purposes -- one for the news (Robert Downey Jr.), one for the law (Mark Ruffalo), and one to feed his own personal obsession (Jake Gyllenhaal). Rich in period detail and dripping with style, the two-and-a-half-plus hours movie holds one's attention throughout and exposes a few things along the way: our fascination with serial killers, the frustrating process of hunting one down, and the many obstacles inherent in our system of law and justice. While one feels that the law is serving its purpose in protecting citizens' rights, one also can't help but be unnerved by the numerous technicalities that allow potential murderers to get away. Zodiac also explores our personal need for closure, as delivered by the Gyllenhaal character (he plays the author of the book the movie is based on). When the law has had its chance and the culprit escapes, the public compensates for its dissatisfaction from seeing punishment unfulfilled by passing judgment for ourselves. O.J. Simpson, anyone? Overall, it's our way of dealing with unanswerable questions and the futilities that crop up in life. As Zodiac shows, the quest to fill those gaps can consume us and defeat us, all the while taunting us with the feeling that evidence of the assurance we seek may be just around the corner. (added 8/3/2007)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2007

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