Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

Welcome to 2007, the best year for the American moviegoer possibly ever. While a lot of people might prefer 1939 or 1968 or even (Jesus) 1999, 2007 stands out to me personally, and to that end I’ve decided to review an indeterminate number of films from that year, in chronological order. Originally I wanted to showcase the highlights of that year, but in all honesty, curiosity got the better of me with some of these. For that reason, I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hillary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t actually seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard. I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, but you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is mostunorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired. C

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Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus

Dir. Kenny Ortega, 1993

In the pantheon of pop culture, there are few words as cringe-inducing to me as “Disneyfication.” Like “selling out,” it is an outdated term that needlessly vilifies success; a perpetuation of the very 20th century concept of the artist as a dangerous rebel. And for all we like to bash Disney, nobody can accuse them of making all their stories squeaky clean. Hocus Pocus is a perfect example.

Hocus Pocus starts with the story of Thackeray Binx, a teenaged boy in 17th Century Salem, MA whose sister was killed by three sister witches, played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. When Binx catches them, they turn him into a (immortal) cat, and before being executed proclaim that they will return for a single night when a virgin lights the black-flamed candle in their house.

Flash-forward to 1993. 15-year-old Max is a recent arrival from California, and an instant outcast. Also, he’s a virgin, which shouldn’t be a big deal at his, but everybody gives him a hard time over it. So he lights the black-flame candle to impress a girl he likes, summoning the witches, and causing all hell to break loose.

This movie didn’t do that well initially, but it did establish certain Halloween aesthetic for kids movies in the mid-90s, and it got a lot of play on television. Needless to say, if you read my writing on a regular basis, you’ve probably already seen it. Although it already had a decent following in the gay community, it exploded in popularity on its 20th anniversary. The kids who originally watched it were now adults, and this is a movie adults can enjoy. In fact, this movie seems like it was actually made for adults. Family entertainment was much darker in the 1980s and early 1990s than today; and this movie isn’t just dark, it deals with such heavy-duty topics as tits, sexual frustration, and dead children.

Yes, Hocus Pocus is campy fun, but it isn’t lazy or condescending. That’s what we liked about it as kids, and that’s why we remember it now. A-

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

3:10 to Yuma

Dir. James Mangold, 2007

3:10 to Yuma is yet another haute-western from the back half of 2007, albeit the most traditional of the bunch. The second adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story of the same name, it begins with poor Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), whose horses are stolen by the ruthless Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) in an effort to rob a stagecoach belonging to the then-under construction Southern Pacific Railway. The railway forms a posse with Evans to capture Wade and get him on the titular prison train to Yuma. Meanwhile, Wade’s even more psychotic deputy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) seeks to set him free– at any cost.

The relationship between Evans and Wade is an interesting one: Wade is a bad guy and he knows it, but he sees an honesty in Evans that makes him stand out from the amoral wasteland of the American west. Even if Wade gets on the train, he won’t be gone long, but he’s still willing to put on a show if only for Evans. But the real standout in the cast is Ben Foster. He’s been all over film and television, and he truly deserves to be better known; he’s our generation’s Joe Pesci.

All in all, while it pales in comparison to all the other movies coming out at this time, 3:10 to Yuma is a decent film with some great performances, and you should definitely see them if you like the people involved. B

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013

The Coen Brothers may be the perfect filmmakers. While they like to re-use images, tropes, and ideas, nobody can predict quite when or how those elements will come into play. That’s one of the reasons people dislike their films.

Inside Llewyn Davis is one film that is bound to divide audiences. It centers around the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a down-and-out folksinger struggling to make his way after the suicide of his partner. He’s not an unappreciated musical genius, just a journeyman, and the film takes us on an odyssey around New York and beyond.

When I saw the trailer for this film, it was nearly a year before it came out, and I was really disappointed. It looked like a very sombre and sad movie, so I was surprised how much fun it ended up being. The film is very episodic; elements and characters are introduced that are never really explored, so my only complaint is that I wish we had more. But that’s a good complaint for a movie to have, and I highly recommend it. A-

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1935

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is exactly the kind of conventional film that falls through the cracks of history. Does it deserve to be better known? Probably not.

Gary Cooper stars as Alan McGregor, an officer of the British army stationed in the Raj, near the border with Afghanistan. After being held responsible for the death of a fellow officer, he is put in charge of two replacement troops, one of which (Richard Cromwell) is the neglected son of the Lancers’ commander (Guy Standing). The tension between McGregor, his subordinates, and his commander draws them into a cross-border conflict with a dangerous Afghan chieftain.

It’s most notable for what it doesn’t do. This film was made in the very first days of the Hays Code, a system of censorship designed to appeal to a more virtuous sense of humanity. The Hays Code is indirectly responsible for almost all of the tropes we associate with Hollywood’s Golden Age, but in 1935 not all of those tropes had developed. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer features no romance subplot, which was unusual then but would have been unthinkable a couple of years later. And the film eschews the typical “happily ever after” conclusion, ending instead with a heroic sacrifice.

The biggest elephant in the room is the brownface. At a certain point, some soldiers disguise themselves as Afghans by darkening their faces, and it’s pretty bad, but considering the time period, it could have been worse. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Even if you can get past the blatant imperialism, racial insensitivity, and Hollywood unreality, the action is pretty good for the time, but it’s not particularly memorable. There’s nothing really striking about the film itself, and the characters and situations have all been done better than they are here. C

The Master (2012)

The Master

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012

First of all, whatever you may have heard, this movie has nothing to do with Scientology, so get that out of your head before watching it.

Second, a confession: Before The Master, the only Paul Thomas Anderson films I’d seen were Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, so I don’t know if his two other films have the same problems that I’m going to complain about here, but up to this point I really enjoyed his work. Even when it’s dark and gruesome, Anderson is great at establishing atmosphere and characters, but The Master doesn’t seem to understand what it’s getting at.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix at his most unintelligible as Freddie Quell, a reticent Second World War veteran whose talent for making toxic chemical cocktails gets him in enough trouble to cause him to stow away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a similarly broken cult leader. Over an uncertain amount of time, Freddie and Dodd build each other up until they no longer need each other.

I really liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd. One scene that particularly stood out to me was when he makes his “second revelation” in Arizona, and tells his congregation that the visions he had previously called “past lives” were really in their heads. Dodd isn’t just a huckster, he’s an artist who’s become dissatisfied with his creation. It’s an familiar scene for creatives of all stripes.

But I didn’t like Freddie. I like Phoenix, but Anderson’s choices in the portrayal of Freddie are too perplexing to make any sense of. In one scene, Freddie imagines all the women in the congregation naked, but it’s without any context; the guy speaks so little, and upon speaking is so hard to understand, that he’s impossible to relate to or comprehend. Hell, I felt kinda gross after seeing it. This is a beautiful film, mind you, but most of the praise I’ve read for it is based on the substance of the story, not the look or style, so clearly there’s something I’m not getting. C

Paranoid Park (2008)

Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008

One of Gus Van Sant’s smaller films, Paranoid Park is a textbook example of the Instant Period Piece, a work that so perfectly and meticulously captures the era in which it was made that its datedness becomes part of its enjoyability. The bad skater hair, the girls dressed as ring-tailed lemurs, the little brother reciting lines from Napoleon Dynamite– everything about the movie screams “2000s,” and the sooner you realize that, the more enjoyable the film becomes.

The plot is paper-thin, but still incredibly dark. Based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a reticent teen skater who ventures alone to a dangerous underground skate park and is implicated in a gruesome murder.

There are parts of this film that echo the lower echelons of art cinema. A sex scene recalls a more restrained Larry Clark, while there are long, pointless silences and audio experiments that bring back traumatic memories of Gus Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry. But if you can get past those things, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this movie. It’s not the best thing in the world, but I really liked what it ended up doing. B-