As the month of June reared its ugly head, the summer of 2007 looked like another grim season at the movies. Big-budget monsters like Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End piled into every theatre and trumped box-office competition despite scathing reviews and lackluster word of mouth. It seemed as though Hollywood had finally thrown in the towel and opted to permanently re-hash plotless sequels for the critic-proof population of 11-and 12-year-old tweens.
To the surprise of even the most pessimistic of moviegoers, however, the summer of 2007 ended up being a season geared to adults as well, with entertainment that proved to be both sophisticated and enjoyable. With the high-flying antics of Jason Bourne and the cuisine of a small rat, Hollywood vindicated itself in July and August, offering a diverse line-up of films that satisfied a broad range of taste and expectations for younger and older audiences alike.
The action genre, aside from the bloated incoherence of Michael Bay's Transformers, stepped up its pedigree this summer with fierce new films like Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum and Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn.
Each offered a high-octane dose of thrills and suspense and, while it's Rescue Dawn that truly breaks new ground as a serious piece of bravura filmmaking, The Bourne Ultimatum establishes itself as a successful experiment in visceral intensity.
In Ultimatum, Greengrass cuts and splices scenes together so quickly and with such aplomb that you almost feel guilty about getting motion sickness. His innovative, hyperactive hand-held style creates an environment of constant tension and suspense, where nothing and no one is secure. With bruising speed, we are put right alongside the title character, Jason Bourne, following him in the exhausting pursuit of his identity.
Whether the plotline is at all plausible, seeing as Bourne manages to hop continents in less than a day, is irrelevant to Greengrass, who cares more about the momentum of his film than of the intricacies of the story itself. This method mostly works, although Ultimatum does tend to overcompensate in the action department due to its lack of drama.
Nevertheless, in a genre populated by Michael Bay-directed fiascos, who's complaining? The Bourne Ultimatum succeeds as a ruthless, high-voltage piece of action filmmaking that manages to jolt and excite throughout.
While Greengrass gives the one-note premise of his film a necessary boost in style and energy, the German-born Herzog does something even more remarkable. His Rescue Dawn is the true story of Dieter Dangler (played by the once-again emaciated Christian Bale), an American fighter pilot in Vietnam. The film comes across as strikingly, and convincingly, patriotic-a feat unheard of in an era of international hatred toward the United States. Herzog has always been fascinated with the canvas of America, but his films are usually tinged with an element of perversity.
In Rescue Dawn, however, Herzog goes against the grain by creating an apolitical film about the tenacity and strength of one American soldier in what is now considered a disastrous war. Considering, on top of this, the situation in Iraq coupled with the polarizing politics of 2007, it is something of a wonder that Herzog has crafted a timeless adventure story that applauds the efforts of our troops overseas.
The summer also offered us new works from Judd Apatow (director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and producer of this summer's insanely quotable Superbad) and John Carney, two men eager to rip apart the conventional love story. With the frank and funny romantic comedy Knocked Up, Apatow makes it clear that his effortless skills as a comic writer/director are here to stay.
As a commentary on male immaturity and on the woes of adult responsibility, Knocked Up is rich and relatable in its humor. Whereas most comedies about lazy, uncommitted men who rejoice in their inability to function as an adult (Vince Vaughn, anyone?), Knocked Up uses its overweight, pot-smoking protagonist Ben (Seth Rogen) to tell the opposite story: we all have to grow up eventually, no matter how inviting the irresponsible life may be.
The movie succeeds admirably as an R-rated comedy about the modern man-child, but as far as romance is concerned, Knocked Up prefers its raunch. Apatow attempts to integrate a complex love story between Ben and Alison (Katherine Heigl), but the result feels half-hearted, cold and underdeveloped.
Whereas Knocked Up conveys a society obsessed with sex but indifferent to romance, John Carney's Once not only assures us that love is still alive, but that it can be expressed with clarity and heart through the medium of music. With an extremely lowbudget of under $200,000 and a pair of relatively unknown musicians as the film's leads, Once risks looking foolish every step of the way. It's the risk, though, that makes this little folk-rock Irish musical so courageous and rewarding.
Once is about love, but not just the deep affection between two people; it's about the love of music and the ability it has to change people for the better. Not since Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman belted their untrained voices atop an enormous elephant in Moulin Rouge! has music in cinema felt so vulnerable and so alive.
Once was one of the few independent films to break through to a mainstream mob this summer, though there were plenty of other gems that slipped under the radar.
Films such as Away From Her, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley's debut, and Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart powerfully affected their small audience with impressive performances by Julie Christie and Angelina Jolie, respectively. Neither film caught audience attention, and quickly disappeared from theatres.
Michael Moore's Sicko, though flawed in its second half, offered a caustic analysis of America's healthcare system and currently ranks as one of the more important films of the year.
Still, there was one film this summer that managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the season's best entries, a film that holds its own against the most polished and star-studded of Oscar contenders. That film is Ratatouille. Pixar hasn't produced a more seasoned and intelligent work of art to date.
The subject, a lower-class rat (Remy, voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) who wants to cook, may sound childish at first, but under the care of brilliant writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Ratatouille transforms into something greater than a CGI cartoon. It becomes a film about the necessity of refinement and culture, stressing the obligation man has to celebrate art to its greatest potential. Ratatouille will not only make you want to cook and pop open a moderately expensive bottle of red wine, it'll make you appreciate the importance of hard work and the significance of living a life surrounded by art and culture.
Does that sound snobby? Not in the hands of an expert like Bird. Ratatouille makes clear that in a money-hungry world where easy access is just a Wal-Mart trip away, this so-called elitist mentality is as vital an alternative as ever.
Similar to the inspirational, pauper-to-prince evolutionary arc of Ratatouille's rodent Remy and his cultivating tastes, this summer may not have begun auspiciously, but it proves that even if you start at the bottom, there's hope that you can rise to the top.