Category Archives: 2000s

The Stepford Wives (2004)

*. In my notes on the 1975 film of Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives I mentioned the difficulties they had in capturing the right tone. In this updated version they seem to have had less indecision about to how to play things, plumping for comedy all the way. Unfortunately, they still wound up with a picture that’s an even bigger mess.
*. “I fucked up,” was the verdict of director Frank Oz. What he meant by this wasn’t tone though so much as the size of the picture. He’d wanted to do a smaller, more intimate film, but because of the stars and the eventual budget (a surprising $90 million, apparently $15 million of which went to Nicole Kidman) he had to make it big, which led to him playing it safe. Except in doing so he ended up not playing it safe at all and ended up with the aforementioned mess.
*. By playing it safe Oz meant responding to what audiences wanted: doing everything for the audience and not following his own instincts. But audiences are fickle masters. So when the test screenings didn’t go well the ending had to be completely revamped (making it drag on far too long) and there were numerous reshoots and inserts. They also lost the scene where Joanna stabs Bobbie in the kitchen and Bobbie short circuits, which Oz says took two weeks of shooting and seven months of effects work. I’m glad they cut it — as it’s included as one of the bonus features with the DVD deleted scenes and it’s terrible — but you can bet Paramount wasn’t happy with the money wasted.
*. Oz also didn’t get along well with the cast, though he talks about all of them glowingly on his DVD commentary. The problems were, according to one person working on the film, due to the fact that Oz was used to working with puppets. I don’t know about that, but it’s obvious he didn’t get the most out of a very talented cast.
*. They should have been great: Kidman and Matthew Broderick are the modern couple. Glenn Close, a perennial villain, is the sinister matriarch. When have Bette Midler and Christopher Walken ever not been entertaining? And Roger Bart should be a caricature but is actually real and relatable. Alas, they’re all at sea here.
*. Perhaps the most obvious example of just how sloppy a project this was can be seen in the explanation of the wives. Are they robots? Well, according to an instructional video we get to watch (was Jordan Peele making notes?) they aren’t. Instead they just have nanochips set into their brains so that they can be programmed and controlled by fancy remote units. When the programs are disabled at the mainframe in the Men’s Association the women all go back to being normal. Only the women are robots too, with robot bodies that do all sorts of special mechanical tasks and perform in various superhuman ways. So which is it? The movie very clearly indicates both, and yet they can’t both be possible.
*. “And then I asked myself: Where would people never notice a town full of robots? Connecticut!” This made me wince at how old I’m getting. The fun fact is that I’ve been in Connecticut. Once. But for the life of me I can no longer remember exactly when, outside of “sometime in the 1990s,” or why I was there. I do remember visiting the Hill-Stead Museum and seeing the Monet haystack. I also recall being at a hotel and talking to one of the servers at a buffet. He told me that Connecticut was the most boring place he’d ever lived as nothing ever happened there. But what was I doing in Connecticut? I don’t have any idea now.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the 1975 version how dated it now seemed, despite its themes having as much purchase today as they did then. I could say much the same here. Maybe it’s the whole “back to the future” angle. Maybe it’s the way the CGI looks. Maybe it’s just the silliness of everything. This is a movie that really needed more of an edge. Even with that, however, it still would have been a mess.
*. It’s not the total disaster it’s widely reputed as being because the cast is unsinkable and there are some entertaining moments before it gets bogged down in an incoherent and talky climax. Still, it seems like there’s still an opportunity out there for someone to step up and do Levin’s novel justice. Whatever that might look like.

Bamboozled (2000)

*. Bamboozled doesn’t hide its debts to a storied tradition of media satire. The most obvious precursors are A Face in the Crowd and Network, but you’ll also be thinking of The Producers for its plot conceit of trying to construct a Broadway bomb and then having to deal with a hit. Then the satire is amplified with Spike Lee’s critique of the marketing of Black culture.
*. The film tanked at the box office, which isn’t that surprising. I say that not because of the subject matter or politics so much as because of the film’s oddity. Filmed, for example, on a Mini DV camcorder (which was mainly a budget decision) it has the cheap feel of video, which was thought suitable because it was about television. I think it works, but at the same time it does look rough, which probably didn’t help it find an audience. Also the star Damon Wayans is saddled with a strange accent meant to show his unsureness with his identity but which I just found off-putting.
*. I think it’s very well done, but at the same time it’s a movie that left me frustrated. I like satire that’s not afraid to show some anger, and obviously there were a list of things that had been pissing Spike Lee off and he vents on all of them here. The “wigger” Dunwiddy claiming to know Blacks better than Pierre Delacroix (Wayans). Delacroix riffing on Ving Rhames giving his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon. The marketing of “ghetto” culture. That said, I was frustrated at trying to discern what he was targeting more generally here.
*. The basic point, made very strongly, is that there is a through line from the Black minstrel shows and today’s presentation of Black culture. But I thought Lee needed to be a lot more specific in making the argument that blackface had only become more sophisticated, that in the new millennium we were still getting the “same bullshit.” This is the same problem that bothered Roger Ebert when he interviewed Lee. Ebert wanted specifics but Lee didn’t want to give any, saying “I don’t think it does any good to say ‘Spike Lee doesn’t like this artist or that show.'” That’s fair enough, but clearly he is indicting TV shows, movies, and music and I wanted a clearer idea of what he thought was minstrel-like and what wasn’t.
*. In interviews Lee has suggested some specific examples of stuff he might have had in mind. Gangster rap, for one thing (though I’m not sure what acts in particular), also the TV shows Homeboys in Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, and the movies The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. But none of these are referenced, or even discernible, in Bamboozled, leaving me to wonder what the exact connection was between old minstrel shows and pop culture circa. 2000.

*. Let’s take a couple of examples. First there are the Mau Maus, the militant Black rap band headed by “Big Blak Afrika” (Mos Def). Obviously they mirror the role of the terrorist Ecumenical Liberation Army in Network, but are they meant to be seen as a twenty-first century minstrel show? The gangsta rap that Lee cited as specifically what he mean to condemn in his interview with Ebert? But Lee respects Mos Def and I don’t think he has anything against rap music. I don’t see how this fits into the satire.
*. A second instance is more incidental. At one point Delacroix is rhyming off the names of Black television comedies that we’re meant to take as fitting the minstrel stereotype and he mentions the series In Living Color. This is an in-joke because Damon Wayans (who improvised the line) was one of the stars of In Living Color. On the commentary track Lee expresses surprise that people thought he was targeting In Living Color as being a latter-day minstrel show, saying that he actually liked it.
*. So Mos Def is good, but gangsta rap, or at least some gangsta rap is bad. Black comedy of the kind you see on network television is bad, but In Living Color was actually pretty good. How can you sort this out? What is today’s minstrel culture? What are the connecting threads between Amos ‘n’ Andy and rap music? Good Times? The Cosby Show? The satirical TV commercials we get here for Bomb drink and Timmi Hillnigger urban fashion are harsh, but how big a tweak are they of Lee’s own Michael Jordan ads for Nike (“It’s gotta be the shoes”)? Was Lee a minstrel shilling for Nike? Or look at the closing montage of racist depictions of Blacks at the end of the movie. Wouldn’t it make more sense for these to be contemporary depictions? Because what’s the point of showing us clips that are fifty-plus years old in a movie like this?
*. All of this suggest to me a movie that isn’t entirely sure of itself. There’s a scene in Bamboozled that echoes a similar one in The Producers. In that movie Max and Leo tear off their Nazi armbands after meeting Franz Leibkind, throw them in the trash bit and spit on them. I don’t like that scene because it’s heavy-handed and tells us how we should really feel. In Bamboozled the complementary scene is where Delacroix is looking at images of slave ships online when his mother phones him. Again this feels too heavy, a way of poking us and saying “Are you getting this?” Did we need such a scene? Did Lee think he needed to include it? Why?
*. With all of these caveats I still liked Bamboozled. It’s very well done in ways that are both risky and effective. The editing in particular is brilliant. The way that Michael Rapaport’s Dunwitty character is both the biggest stereotype and totally believable is a score. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are both great as the new minstrel team. I really miss Damon Wayans not being given a chance to play Delacroix in a more relatable manner, as I could never get on board with his accent, but that’s the only part I balked at.
*. I had the feeling though that Lee had left something on the table. Not out of any timidity but because he wasn’t quite sure where he was going. And twenty-plus years later I’m not sure the picture has gotten any clearer with the benefit of hindsight.

In the Cut (2003)

*. I wish I could like this movie. It’s different. It takes some real chances. And David Thomson was beyond effusive in his praise of it: “It is one of the great films of the twenty-first century, and of the hundred years of film that preceded it.” But I can’t get on board. The majority of critical and public opinion got it right. It’s awful.
*. I’ll start off with what I like, which I can limit to Meg Ryan. I don’t think it’s a remarkable performance, but critics in particular tend to go over-the-top in crediting actresses who eschew glamour. Still, she’s solid playing Frannie, an English prof who is studying urban slang, teaching To the Lighthouse, and hanging out at sleazy joints looking for Mr. Goodbar. Because being single and an intellectual means she needs some.
*. Many of those who praised In the Cut did so because they saw it as presenting a female perspective on women’s desire. I can see where that’s coming from, as it’s based on a Susanna Moore novel, directed by Jane Campion, and was produced by a pair of women (Laurie Parker and Nicole Kidman, the latter being originally slated to play Frannie). But was this really the best way to deliver such a message?
*. What is bold about such a generic silk-stockings-and-slasher flick? There were an endless run of Dressed to Kill rip-offs like this that went straight to video in the 1980s. Is In the Cut so different?
*. And what is feminist about any of it? Perhaps the foregrounding of the sisterhood motif in the relationship between Frannie and her step-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Aside from that we have the well-educated but underserviced professional woman who melts in the arms of the swarthy police detective who is sworn to serve and protect her. He was also trained in the arts of cunnilingus by the Chicken Lady — a story that sounds made-up, but she had to ask how he “did that” to her and this was likely the best he could do on the spot. And it made Jack Lowden King of Scotland, so don’t knock it.
*. Are we meant to be impressed by his oral skills? Or the fact that he wears a condom? On the DVD commentary track Campion says she found this “considerate.” I would have thought it obligatory or at the very least de rigueur by 2003.
*. I don’t think In the Cut was meant to be a thriller. But I’m not sure how erotic it was meant to be either. Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Malloy struck me as a caricature Mr. Smooth, all smug and phoney with a nauseating swagger and 1970s pornstache. Even worse, he really doesn’t seem that in to Frannie. He’s also a lousy kisser, though Campion loved the way he smushes his face into Ryan’s. All a matter of taste I guess.
*. Her options on the side are similar stereotypes. There’s the burly Black man (Sharieff Pugh) with the soul of a poet. And Keven Bacon as the stalker ex. How Bacon’s character, who is working 18 hours a day in a hospital as a med student, has the time to follow Frannie around literally everywhere, at all hours, is beyond me. I guess he’s just Kevin Bacon. He’s also such an obvious red herring that his caricature character would be out of place in any movie less obvious than this one.
*. The way the film was shot was bold. Unfortunately, and I don’t like saying this, it’s also very ugly. I’m not sure what the technique used was, but much of the frame is out of focus a lot of the time, and the colour scheme looks sickly and unnatural more than it does gritty. A lot of people seemed to like it though.
*. A dull, overwrought thriller with a bland and unoriginal take on “female desire.” Today it seems to have been mostly forgotten, though there are people like Thomson who continue to carry a torch for it. For what it’s worth, those who like it seem to be of an older generation than my own. Leading me to an observation I rarely make: perhaps I’m just too young to get it.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

*. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is director Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth, which also starred Cate Blanchett in the title role. The Golden Age wasn’t as well received though, and actually managed to be quite controversial, especially for a historical costume epic.
*. The controversy took two forms. In the first place, The Golden Age is bad history. Very bad history. I won’t bother going through all the liberties taken, as there are websites out there that do a better job of fact-checking and there’s so much that’s wrong it would take me forever to go through it all. Suffice it to say that even Blanchett was concerned about people mistaking the film for fact: “It’s terrifying that we are growing up with this very illiterate bunch of children, who are somehow being taught that film is fact, when in fact it’s invention. Hopefully though an historical film will inspire people to go and read about the history. But in the end it is a work of history and selection.”
*. The second controversial point has to do with perceived anti-Catholic bias. This is, on the face of it, pretty hard to deny, especially since it was something already on display throughout much of Elizabeth. Now you could argue that the main action of the story here has to do with Catholic Spain’s attempt to invade England, climaxing in the defeat of Hector Barbossa’s Spanish Armada, so that religious conflict was baked into the story. But still . . .
*. My first thought was that the whole thing was being presented as a response to 9/11. The villainous Spanish, after all, are religious fanatics sending their secret terrorist cells into the liberal democracy of Tudor England even before they launch their unholy strike. What are those banners of Christ but the black flags of ISIS, five hundred years early? And Philip II, isn’t he Osama bin Laden?
*. Catholic groups had every right to feel upset. Put simply, the Spanish aren’t just the enemy, they are evil. All those golden crosses sinking with the Armada are so much Papist trumpery we are meant to exult in the destruction of. Meanwhile, back on Albion’s shores, freedom reigns! Go Reformation!

*. My jaw dropped only five minutes, or less, into The Golden Age. As it went on though, my shock turned to amusement, and finally to hilarity. This is a ridiculous movie, but since it made me laugh and hoot at the screen not once but many times I can’t say I didn’t have a good time. In other words, it’s so bad it’s kind of good.
*. Basically Kapur has taken some events and characters from the historical record, scrambled them together, and turned them into a sumptuous period romance. Just look at Raleigh (Clive Owen), the dashing pirate stepping straight off the cover of a Harlequin, coming onto the screen with a bold gesture and a smoldering glance directed at the repressed queen. Here’s a fellow more than able to fill Robert Dudley’s codpiece from the previous film. Of course he’s a charming rogue, with nothing at all being said about his starting his career as a slaver. Meanwhile, even though Elizabeth is a queen, and a modern, proto-feminist, enlightened monarch at that, she’s still a woman damn it! Of course she melts, by the fireplace, in the hands of this rough, manly man. She may be “called” the Virgin Queen and was childless but . . . she’s a woman damn it! Of course she likes babies!

*. Sir Walter doesn’t just walk the walk though. He can talk the talk. Merely hearing the accounts of his travels is enough to trigger a royal orgasm. And he can comfort her highness with language like this: “We mortals have many weaknesses. We feel too much. Hurt too much. All too soon we die. But we do have the chance of love.” Swoon!
*. A good example of the way the romantic bent overwhelms the history can be seen in the execution of Mary Stuart. By every historical account this was a horrible bit of business. It took the executioner a few whacks of the axe and apparently her lips were still moving for fifteen minutes after decapitation. When her head was held aloft her noggin fell out of her wig. A small dog emerged from under her skirts. Do we get any of that here? No, just a cutaway after a gloriously staged and lit build-up.

*. Well, I’ve said before that the Tudors have never gone out of style and I think it’s true that romance of this kind hasn’t either. So enjoy Sir Walter unlacing Bess’s bodice, or playing horsey with the queen, and slooooowly leaning in for a kiss, before he sails off to smash the Spanish fleet pretty much single-handedly. While Liz watches from a clifftop. I’m not making that up.
*. Full credit, and more, to Cate Blanchett. It’s nothing short of a miracle that she gets through all of this with her dignity intact. But she does. Despite Kapur’s constant efforts at upstaging her with arty shots from high angles, or taken from behind screens or other obstacles. The whole thing looks, and sounds, like a commercial for Tudor toiletries. They could have even used the same tag-line: “Woman. Warrior. Queen.” A historical travesty and a joke in pretty much every other respect, it may survive as camp but I think is more likely to be completely forgotten in another few years. Though some trash can be hard to get rid of. It’s terrifying to think of the children . . .

Flightplan (2005)

*. Bunny Lake Is Missing . . . on an airplane. Which is one way, and a rather bold one at that, of doubling down on what was a highly improbable premise in the first place. Remarkably, Flightplan is not as crazy as Otto Preminger’s laughable 1965 film, which took Evelyn Piper’s story and made a joke of it. Far-fetched, yes. But it’s not bonkers.
*. This leads me to comment, again, on one of the more mystifying habits of filmmakers on their DVD commentaries. What I’m referring to is the way they sidestep attribution of what are clear influences and precursors. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on Don’t Breathe and Villains (both updates of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs), and Quarantine (an English-language remake of Rec). Well, you can see where I’m going with this. Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t mention Bunny Lake Is Missing once during his commentary.
*. He does mention Hitchcock’s name, in passing, but more by way of denying any significant influence. He also doesn’t cite any of Hitch’s movies by name, like The Lady Vanishes (from which they took not only a lot of the plot but the window-writing clue) or Lifeboat (for its single set, albeit supersized here). I don’t know why you wouldn’t acknowledge such obvious influences. Though to be fair, most contemporary reviews avoided them as well.
*. But I guess none of that matters. Flightplan, like any movie, has to make its own way, and it stands or falls on its merits. Critics didn’t care for it, mainly because of the absurdity of the plot, which really is a doozy. But most reviewers singled out Jodie Foster for praise, which I think is well deserved. It’s a complex part, difficult to bring off, and she delivers. Jodie Foster with her game face on is one of the peak experiences in film, and she’s got it on here. This is especially important given that her supporting players are weirdly subdued. Peter Sarsgaard in particular seems ready to fall asleep half the time.
*. The critics were too hard on Flightplan. As a suspense thriller I think it does well enough. It’s not always gripping, the plot really is silly, the reveal of the villains is underplayed, and the Goose Bay coda should have just been skipped. (Schwentke hadn’t thought it necessary but test screenings changed his mind; I think he should have stuck with his gut.) Still, I found this to be an enjoyable sort of B-picture, with everything around Foster adequately turned out. I think the main thing it lacks is a lighter touch. I don’t mean less serious, but more aware of the story’s roots in the trash of the last days of pulp.

Gosford Park (2001)

*. The theatrical release poster for Gosford Park (or at least the best known one, and the one that’s reproduced on the DVD box cover) is basically just a list of names. Because this is a Robert Altman film with an ensemble cast and the names, including Altman’s, are what’s important.
*. I mean the names of the stars. Even right after rewatching this film I couldn’t have told you the name of a single character in the film aside from Mary (Kelly Macdonald). As you watch Gosford Park you just fall into the habit of identifying the character as the star. “Oh, there’s Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Richard Grant,” etc. This is how Altman identifies them throughout the DVD commentary. I don’t think he ever mentions a character’s name. He’ll just say “Maggie Smith’s character,” if he has to.
*. Does this identification-by-star distract us from the characters they’re playing? Or does it provide some assistance in such a crowded house? There may also be a connection in this to the way the below-stairs cast are identified not by their names but by the last names of their lords and ladies. Their names, at least, don’t mean very much anyway (until we get to the final reveal). Even the police inspector is left nameless throughout several attempts at introduction because nobody really cares what he’s called. He’s just the hired help that had to be brought in to clean up a mess. Later they won’t even bother to get his name right, but it doesn’t matter.
*. Is there too much going on, especially given Altman’s penchant for not making clear what’s important in terms of the plot? Perhaps there is, in the sense that much of what’s going on is irrelevant. Big chunks of the set-up escaped me entirely. How many people on a first viewing even get that there are three sisters? I know I didn’t. And even on re-watches I’m still lost as to what how Isobel was being blackmailed. Only the commentary by writer Julian Fellowes (which is more informative than the one with Altman, if you have to choose) helped sort some of it out for me.

*. Altman wanted to make a movie that people would want to see twice. But a movie they’d have to see twice? Or three times? Because a great deal of it continues to elude me.
*. The first time I saw Gosford Park I didn’t know what to think of it. I still don’t. The inspiration for it was Altman’s desire to do an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, which later morphed into an examination of class issues, to the point where the mystery became incidental. In fact, there is little mystery involved, in the sense of red herrings and clues to be followed. At the end we simply find out what happened, and nobody muchcares. The police investigation, led by the bumbling Stephen Fry, doesn’t solve the crime, in part because, as with the rest of Gosford Park society, Fry’s assistant is the only one capable of getting anything done.
*. So again we have what I think is Altman’s great theme: what is important? Not who killed Michael Gambon (Sir William Something-or-other), but rather how these people relate to one another, how such a world works. Note how the movie ends with the repetition of the line about what use testifying to some seemingly important truth could possibly serve. Why, none whatsoever. What happened at Gosford Park is going to stay in Gosford Park. But if those walls could talk . . .
*. Well, if they could talk they’d have stories to tell,. But would they talk? And if they talked, would anyone notice? I like how Fellowes puts it when describing the restrained speech patterns of this world: “nothing should be talked of as though it is tremendously important.” Again, a perfect fit for Altman’s indirect style, his tonal camouflage. Then there are scenes that are silent. What does Mrs. Wilson say to Parks after he’s told to take the dog out of the kitchen? Anything important? I mean, there is a hint earlier that he knows who she is.
*. That “not saying anything as though it’s important” has its apotheosis in Mirren’s line at the end: “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” You have to listen hard to get the emotion behind that. And yet Fellowes calls it “the key line of the film” and Mirren actually didn’t want to say it, thinking it was unnecessary. I think her instincts were right, but that might have been hard for a writer to understand.

*. The British aristocracy between the wars. But is there any sense here of that “dancing on the volcano” feeling Renoir would be inspired by in Rules of Game? I don’t get any of that, though some have claimed it’s here.
*. I wonder what the attraction is for this period. I like a country-house mysteries as much as the next person, but the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing never appealed to me. It’s obviously a draw, however. Fellowes would go on to create the popular Downton Abbey series, which was originally imagined as a spin-off of this property. Do we miss a world of such rigid class distinctions and social rules? That sense of there being an absolute, unchanging order? Or do we find it not that far distant from our own time and place, and getting closer to us every day? Does it feel especially relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
*. The examination of the class angle is well done, but I also wondered at the point of it. Listening to Fellowes, I thought it was just something like we get in The Remains of the Day, about how a class system this rigid shapes more than just behaviour. One’s job becomes one’s life, a routine that you never stop to question. One simply does one’s duty, not caring if it’s right or wrong or what effect it might have on you.
*. But none of this seems that fresh or new. David Ansen: “Gosford is fine, well-groomed entertainment, but the road it takes has already been well paved.” A comedy about English snobbishness and class exploitation? Well, sure. But it is put across very well. Altman is a perfect fit for the comedy of manners and understatement. One of the pleasures of repeated viewings is picking up many lines that you can easily miss the first time. The stars are all present and accounted for, but also nearly invisible. I almost missed Derek Jacobi entirely (his biggest scenes were actually cut).
*. For all the attention to detail I have to take some marks off for authenticity (as hesitant as I am at doing so given Fellowes’ understanding of this world). Elsie’s explosion at dinner, which gets her fired, seemed incredible to me. There’s no way that would have happened, especially with so little provocation. Also, the Ryan Phillippe character seemed a real stretch and I think the movie would have been better without him. But maybe I just don’t like Ryan Phillippe. Would Jude Law (originally cast for the part) have been better? Maybe. Denton, however, is a creepy jerk. I do like how he’s shown to be a predator and not another honest Yankee in a corrupt court. This isn’t a movie with a lot of heroes, upstairs or down.

*. I return to my saying I’m not sure what to think of Gosford Park. It’s a movie to be appreciated and enjoyed, but not really loved or excited by. The cast is sterling, with Macdonald managing to more than hold her own playing against any of the vets. Over two hours long, but surprisingly light on its feet, without having any moments that drag. A movie filled with funny bits that won’t make you laugh out loud but will raise plenty of smiles. I love Countess Trentham telling Weissman that none of the people at the party will ever see the movie he’s planning to make (which is Charlie Chan in London). Or the call for the head butler Jennings upon discovering the body. Good old Jennings. He’ll fix this up!
*. A triumph then, and a great movie, of a sort. Not a personal favourite, though it is growing on me, and I realize it’s a movie that’s not trying to get you to like it. Just as we don’t like the people in it, even though, for some reason, their very dysfunctionality and wickedness is not just comic but comforting. I guess ultimately it’s the appeal of the cozy, which is no less appealing when someone gets hurt.

Jumper (2008)

*. A movie very much launched with a franchise in mind, but things didn’t pan out. Why not? Most if not all of the ingredients were there. Let’s look at where things went off the rails.
*. A formulaic YA novel from 1992 provided a perfectly workable concept. It was adapted very freely here to make it even more formulaic. That formula being the standard superhero stuff of the boy who is given special powers and the girlfriend who has to try to understand just how special he is. Throw in the rival gangs of Montagues and Capulets, or werewolves and vampires, or Paladins and Jumpers. You’re good to go.
*. A likeable star in Hayden Christensen. Though I wouldn’t rate him as more than likeable. I guess he’s not known for much, if anything, outside of being Anakin Skywalker. But then do we remember Mark Hamill for anything aside from playing Luke? Call it the curse of the Skywalkers.
*. As for Christensen: he’s good looking, but while not a hopeless actor he doesn’t project much of anything on screen. Anthony Lane, in his best put-down mode, refers to him as having been “a kind of handsome void where Anakin was supposed to be” before lowering the boom: “One day, I feel sure, the rich mantle of charisma will descend upon him, but Jumper is not that occasion.” Still, in a movie like this Christensen’s handsome void might have been more than enough.
*. Throw in Rachel Bilson as the hero’s girlfriend. There’s at least a bit of chemistry there, as they’d go on to be a couple for a while off-screen. Jamie Bell is the fast-talking Brit who knows the ropes. Apparently his accent is considered “Geordie.” Live and learn. Samuel L. Jackson is here, and for once not tearing down the house with an over-the-top performance loaded with MF-bombs to match his shocking white helmet of hair. But then he may have sensed that he didn’t have to do much to take over the movie completely. And there’s even an already sullen Kristen Stewart popping her head in at the end just to say hello before jumping out of this franchise to start her own, on her way to becoming the highest-paid actress in the world over the next couple of years. We’ll have a good time explaining that, years from now.

*. Speaking of Christensen and Bilson, it was during their scene together at the Colosseum that I was struck by the big gap in their heights. Not surprised by the gap — that’s not uncommon — but surprised that I noticed it. There are many ways to conceal this, most often used when casting a short leading man. Christensen is 6′ and Bilson 5’2″ and I really picked up on it when they were together in Rome. Then you notice things like the heels on her boots (the ones she has such trouble pulling off in bed). Those look like they are 4-inch heels! Have fun walking around Rome in those!
*. Director Doug Liman was a hot property coming off of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I give him more credit than most for some decent action sequences. I like that the jumping stuff isn’t always swaddled in effects but looks like pretty basic editing tricks a lot of the time. This allows the fight and chase scenes to whip along quite nicely.
*. Critics panned it but there was decent box office. Which leads back to the question I started with: why didn’t this series have legs? They certainly seemed to be setting us up at the end for a bunch of sequels, as Griffin (Bell) and Roland (Jackson) are both left hanging, literally (the one from a power line the other from a cliff). But aside from a short-lived spin-off series that played on YouTube this was to be it.
*. The bad reviews, or at least their vehemence, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. An incoherent and inexplicable plot? It seemed to make rough sense to me, at least as much as any of these superhero movies do. Sure there isn’t any larger sense of purpose to the goings-on — what is it Jumpers really want to do with their special powers aside from have a good time? why do the Paladins want to kill them off? — but none of this bothered me. Of course none of it makes a lick of sense, but if you’re already tossing out all the most basic laws of physics then who cares about the details?
*. Perhaps the script was to blame. David (Christensen) doesn’t seem very relatable or likeable. The movie begins with his voiceover telling us how he used to be “normal.” I took this as a put-down, and he immediately tells us that this is how it was, indeed, intended, by adding “a chump just like you.” So all of us non-Jumpers are just losers? What a terrible way to alienate an audience right from the get-go. And the producers were well aware of this as they talk about the voiceover “insulting the audience” on the commentary track. Apparently they saw it as making David more realistic and relatable. They thought that audiences would root for the hero more if he would act like a regular guy (or dude, or bro) by “flexing” and being a player. I don’t get it, but then I’m sure I wasn’t in the target demographic.
*. The script was also shoved into the back seat by the decision to have the movie “move at the pace a teleporter lives his life” (this comes from one of the voices on the commentary). That is to say, with all the boring parts (exposition, plot mechanics) taken out. Then add the fact that they were laying the groundwork for a franchise so they wouldn’t want to explain everything all at once (if they’d even figured out where they were going yet, which I suspect they hadn’t). The result is a story that feels like they were making half of it up as they went along.
*. The thing is, despite all the talk on the commentary track about how they were avoiding “normal cliché formula” and “turning the genre on its head,” this is a really conventional picture with a pair of pretty young people making out and doing lots of action stunts in exotic locations, served up with no more interest in character than a typical Marvel production. It also feels very much like what it is: the first part of a likely trilogy that was never made. In sum: I can’t say I feel let down by it, or by the fact that there weren’t any more.

Luther (2003)

*. The fact that this movie was partially funded by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (which changed its name in 2014 to the nondenominational Thrivent Financial) gave me pause. I had thoughts of Inchon (1981), which was bankrolled by the Unification Church. Religion and history make a bad mix, and though there have been biopics of Luther before this, they tended to be more political than theological in tone. Here it seemed we were going to get propaganda of the Word.
*. It’s actually not as bad as all that, though it’s still a pretty flat costume drama. As you’d expect, Luther himself is a Protestant saint. The film takes us from the thunderstorm (where Luther vowed to become a monk) to the Diet of Augsburg. These were Luther’s heroic years, and that’s fair play. Most biographies of Luther skim over the later years pretty quickly, as he wasn’t as likeable a figure.
*. Joseph Fiennes even looks the part. There’s a popular tendency to think of Luther as being rounder, but during these years he was reported to be so gaunt and almost frail that people thought he was in danger of collapsing. And Fiennes’s face even bears some resemblance to the earliest Cranach portrait. As a performance though it’s pretty limited. Luther is the angry, righteous young man who turns all sappy when love comes to call at the end. I never felt his anfechtungen, or wrestling with demons.
*. As with any such movie you can pick holes in it as history. Apparently pews weren’t in widespread use in churches at the time. We don’t know if Luther ever personally met Frederick the Wise (played here by Peter Ustinov, in his last big-screen appearance). I can cut them slack over things like that. I didn’t buy the attempt to portray Luther as a modern liberal though. Did he really insist on giving a suicide a Christian burial? I know many, if not most of his views were thoroughly medieval. He believed in witches, for example.
*. Well, they were making a movie. It’s not a sermon or a history lecture. But judged as entertainment I can’t rate it that highly. They shot on location and got a big cast done up in period costume but there doesn’t seem like much at stake. I suspect part of that may be our century’s fault. What spiritual demons do we wrestle with?

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

*. The pattern holds. I wasn’t a big fan of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and his follow-up The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) was truly awful. Alexandre Aja’s 2006 The Hills Have Eyes was a movie I much preferred to the original. This sequel to that movie (the hill folk are again mutant fallout from atomic bomb testing) isn’t as good as Aja’s movie, but it’s not bad, and much better than Craven’s own Part II.
*. Craven again produced here, and co-wrote the screenplay along with his son Jonathan. It’s a good story, not content with just rehashing the same idiot plot of young people who take a wrong turn and end up in slasher country. Instead, the army has been sent in to clear out Area 16, but before they can finish the job the mutants come out of their mine shafts and start killing people off.
*. Caught in the middle of this mutant uprising is a squad of National Guard soldiers on a training mission. They’re well armed and at least partially trained so you’d expect them to be able to hold their own. Alas, they are only partially trained, and that part not very well. Despite being introduced to us by way of an absolutely insane live-fire training exercise (seriously, that’s not even close to being realistic), they still seem pretty shaky on the basics. Not only do they leave their rifles lying around for anyone to pick up, they also lean them up against walls and tables. This is something you never do with an army rifle. You always lay it down flat. Even I learned that much basic training.
*. Well, we might say, despite their being green, they do as well as the space commandos in Aliens and Leprechaun 4: In Space, with the former being a movie very much on point with this one. Only Craven didn’t want tough-ass real soldiers but kids with guns instead.
*. I point to the connection not just for the soldiers-vs.-monsters idea, but for the way these particular mutants have a thing for nasty breeding practices. The movie begins with a really harsh birth scene where the chained mother is immediately killed by the chief mutant for some unspecified reason. Later, one of the two female National Guards will be raped in an equally horrific manner. So you could think of the mutants as like the Xenomorphs.
*. A note on rape. The original Hills Have Eyes had a scene where rape is threatened, and some see it as fitting in with the whole rape-revenge exploitation genre. The rape is taken further in Aja’s film, especially in the unrated version where it goes on for quite a bit. In this movie they ramp up the violence more, as the victim is beaten badly at the same time. Yes, the villain is killed — several times over — at the end, including having his crotch smashed in with a sledge hammer not once, not twice, but three times by the woman he raped, but it’s still a road I wish they hadn’t gone down. There’s just no need for it here.
*. The two female leads are, by the way, named Missy and Amber. Ah, man. Really? Plus it was standard around this time to have our heroines in horror movies running around in tight (and often wet) tank tops. Which happens again here, even though there’s no reason for Amber to have taken her combat shirt off.
*. I liked finding the guy in the basement of the outhouse, but that was another point I had trouble with. How did her get in there? “Who would do this to someone?” Napoleon asks. Good question. Also why?
*. What’s with Colonel Redding? He seems to know an awful lot about the mutants and their lifeways, yet is out stalking them with no back-up. There’s a hint with the Area 16 label that the government is up to some kind of dirty work out in the desert that they’re keeping secret, which may also explain why, given all the people the mutants have been killing, the area isn’t notorious for being the Bermuda Triangle of New Mexico.
*. Why is it that Papa Hades (he’s the biggest and baddest mutant, played by the same actor who played Papa Jupe in the previous film) can only bark out words like “Die!”, “Cunt!” and “Bitch!” and nothing else? Is this a result of years spent watching Divorce Court, which according to Aja’s movie is the only program they like to watch?
*. Apparently the mine shafts were designed by the same people who did the caves in The Descent. I was reminded of that (much better) movie a lot here. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the shift from the bright sunlight of Aja’s movie to so much darkness. In the earlier film the mines were just a place to go through to get to the town on the other side. Here they’re where we spend most of our time. Which isn’t as much fun.
*. Critics dumped on it, but I don’t know what they could have been expecting. It’s not great, but it’s head and shoulders above most of the other horror trash that was coming out around this time. They built on Aja’s work and managed to take things in a slightly new direction. Most of it is pretty conventional, but entertaining all the same. It also seems to have done pretty good box office. But there has, as of yet, been no sequel. I’m not sure why. Franchises have sputtered on with far less fuel in the tank.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

*. I’ve talked before about how the first decade of the twenty-first century launched a whole whack of short-lived horror franchise resets. There was a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a new Friday the 13th, a new Prom Night, a new Omen, a new Amityville Horror, a new Nightmare on Elm Street, a new Halloween, a new Last House on the Left, and even a new I Spit On Your Grave. I think in every case these movies failed to step over the low bar that had been set. And I say a low bar because let’s face it, most of the originals were dreadful.
*. The one exception to this general rule of inferior remakes is Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes. In part this is because I’ve always been underwhelmed by Wes Craven’s 1977 original, but I think it’s also in large part due to the fact that Aja takes the material, does his own thing with it, and does it very well.
*. To be sure, Aja’s “thing” isn’t for everyone. The back end of this film is a full-throttle splatterfest, the gore doled out by a variety of weapons (shotgun, spiked tire trap, baseball bat, pick-axe). But given that this is what the audience would, justifiably, be expecting I didn’t have any problem with it and overall I thought it was handled very well. I also really liked the new wrinkle of making the feral family into mutants generated by atomic bomb testing in the New Mexico desert. Throw in some inspired art direction and you’ve got a bloody good time.
*. The mutation back story does have the effect though of undercutting the original juxtaposition of the two families. Are the mutants a family, or just townspeople too lazy to get out of the way of the bomb? Is Papa Jupiter, now a minor figure who can only growl and is left “quite far in the background” in Craven’s eyes, still the patriarch? And what relation is the gas station owner to any of them? In the original he was Jupiter’s father but here he becomes a somewhat superfluous character, for all the information he gives, and his initial act of treachery is mystifying. (According to Craven’s commentary it was because Lynn had seen his stolen jewels so he thought she was going to turn him in. But this wasn’t clear to me even on several viewings.)
*. In short, the political thrust of Craven’s film, insofar as it had a political thrust, is scrambled. In this movie Aja seems more interested in taking it to various American myths, like the frontier and the bright-and-shiny façade of life in the 1950s. Note the emphasis on the American flag flying from the SUV, which is later planted in a corpse’s skull, only to be dug out and used as a weapon in a re-enactment of Iwo Jima. And of course there’s the freak “Cyst” (Greg Nicotero) giving a raspy rendition of the national anthem. There’s still the family prayer before they split up after the crash, but American nationalism has become the new religion to be mocked. To which we might just say that the filmmakers are French and let it go at that.

*. More bothersome, sticking with the French spin, is that I don’t think Aja’s ear for English dialogue was all that good. He keeps a few of the lines from the original (though sadly loses the best), but they get run through by the actors without the proper emphasis. Which seems odd because I think most of the cast were American. But the director makes a difference in such matters.
*. Is it another bit of French business to have Doug casting an eye on the nubile body of his sunbathing sister-in-law? There really seems to be something going on there, and I thought it was a great touch for being both unsettling and sexy.
*. I kept wondering where I’d seen Big Bob before. It took a while, but the penny finally dropped. That’s Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine. Raw and then cooked.
*. Is it a movie that demands you silence your inner critic? Probably, but here’s some carping to go along with the praise.

*. Once again we have mutants who are clearly suffering from terrible deformities and radiation sickness but are also superhumanly strong and have Wolverine-like healing powers. Multiple gunshot wounds and stabbings don’t even slow them down. “That’s a mortal wound, right?” producer Peter Locke asks on the commentary as Pluto gets the broken bat stuffed into his abdomen. Alas, no. I thought they were at least being plausible with Lizard walking with a limp after being stabbed in the leg, but then (just as in the original), he’s out bouncing over the hills like a mountain goat chasing Ruby. And when he finally gets blown away with the shotgun, three times!, and is left lying there I was saying to myself “I don’t think even this movie can go so far as to have him get up again”. Alas . . .
*. Boy do I hate this cliché of the unkillable villain. I mean, I know it comes with the territory, but Papa Jupe gets vaporized in that trailer explosion and he’s still alive?
*. There have to be a couple of nominees for the award for biggest idiot in an idiot-plot horror movie in here. Like Bobby, with his pants drooping halfway down his legs, firing his gun blindly over his shoulder when running away from Jupiter. Though the sheer stupidity of the family was also very much an issue in Craven’s film, where the dog was the smartest character.
*. Speaking of the dog, Beast, he really has a hard time of it here. First he gets locked in a car in the burning desert, then he saves Doug only to have Doug run away, leaving him to fight Pluto on his own (something that even pissed Craven off). You have to wonder, as I often do, why dogs think humans are even worth it.
*. Man that fire extinguisher has a lot of agent in it. Sort of like one of those guns that never run out of ammunition. Of course there’s no way in hell a little kitchen unit like that would put a dent in the monster blaze that Big Bob is roasting on. But this is a movie.

*. They scouted sites all over the world but settled for shooting in Morocco. Because it looked just like New Mexico. They also scouted sites in New Mexico, but according to Locke on the commentary track the locations in New Mexico were too remote and hard to get to. Which seems odd when you’re comparing it to a town on the edge of the Sahara. Originally Craven had wanted to shoot at the same location as the original (in California) but condos had been built around it.
*. I’ve mentioned the neat art direction — sort of retro, ’50s Western gothic, right down to that awesome Airstream trailer — but the photography by Maxime Alexandre (who would go on to do two more horror remakes, shooting The Crazies and Maniac) is also worth mentioning. This is a surprisingly bright movie, which is something Locke mentions in passing, drawing the comparison to what movies looked like in the ’70s. “It’s the juxtaposition of something really gorgeous with something insane happening inside of it. If you look at the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the original Hills Have Eyes, it looks rough and mean and you know it looks like the landscape of it. This thing sort of made everything glossy and beautiful, and then something terrible happened within the glossy and beautiful landscape.” True, and I don’t think this approach works very often, especially when dealing with such grungy material. But here it does, reflecting the bright desert sun and post-WW2 atomic-age optimism that gave birth to these monsters.
*. In sum, Aja got it right. Which must have pleased Craven, who was producer (the fact that it made money probably helped too). Of course you’d expect a lot of it to be better than Craven’s original. Though this wasn’t a big production, the crash scene alone (three days of shooting for a few seconds of film!) probably cost more, adjusted for inflation, than the entire first movie did. And of course the mutant and gore effects, with CGI, make-up, and prostheses are miles ahead of what they’d been thirty years earlier. I was surprised that Ruby’s weird face was done by CGI, but it’s quite effective. Throw in some new wrinkles (I loved the mannequin town), decent performances (Aaron Stanford is very good as Doug, whose character was apparently patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s in Straw Dogs), lots of blood, and it’s altogether much better than the original. Craven should have been proud.