Advertisements

Movie Reviews

WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

Advertisements

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS: High concept, low returns (2000 in Film #7)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Jonathan Lynn’s mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards is a strange confluence of elements. It puts together a high concept Hollywood comedy premise with two household names, one known for comedy, the other not, alongside a director from an entirely different pedigree.

When it comes to box office, the concoction worked. In one of the most crowded weekends for cinematic releases in the year 2000 up to this point, The Whole Nine Yards ends up qualitatively ruling the roost on those terms. You can understand why. Bruce Willis has by this point brought in punters on the strength of his name for over a decade, well established as one of the defining leading men of the 90’s. Matthew Perry, conversely, was perhaps the breakout star of the era-defining sitcom Friends as Chandler Bing, the deadpan master of the sarcastic one-liner. Friends was here in its wind up years, with Perry and many of the main cast spreading their wings into cinematic careers; indeed coincidentally this same weekend, Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow appears in another comedy, Hanging Up, just two weeks after Courteney Cox’s key role in Scream 3.

If back in the late 90’s you would have put money on the Friends star most likely to maintain a successful, post-show movie career, it would have been Jennifer Aniston, and by and large you would have been right, but The Whole Nine Yards puts a lot of faith in Perry that he can hold his own as a leading man against someone with the casual on-screen magnetism of Willis. And on the whole, Perry manages to translate elements of his awkward, geeky Chandler persona into the role of dentist Nicholas ‘Oz’ Ozeransky, and the fact The Whole Nine Yards doesn’t entirely work is not on Perry’s shoulders. The film doesn’t convince you that Perry is a natural romantic comedy lead but the problems lie in deeper roots.

Ultimately, The Whole Nine Yards—a phrase which translates as “the lot”—is remarkably, for a comedy, lacking in a lot of what you would call laughs, thanks to a cluttered, needlessly muddled script.

THE BEACH: Apocalypse Now 2 – Beach Vacation (2000 in Film #6)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Danny Boyle’s millennial curiosity, The Beach

You almost can’t reconcile twenty-something Leonardo DiCaprio with his forty-something incarnation. He moved across the 2000’s from the teen heartthrob who raced pulses for Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet and melted a generation of hearts for James Cameron in Titanic all the way into a skilled, chameleonic leading man and character actor all in one by the time of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

When you look back at The Beach, it feels like the first stirrings of DiCaprio’s edgy, youthful brio shedding its skin. Danny Boyle’s picture is DiCaprio embracing his sex symbol icon while simultaneously rejecting it.

Some commented at the time that Titanic, released three years earlier in 1997, likely helped The Beach at the box office, yet I’m cheating this week as it wasn’t the biggest financial success in the US on its opening weekend. That honour goes to Disney’s The Tigger Movie, rather ignominiously for Boyle the auteur. Yet the film picked up traction for a decent take, no doubt pulling in Leo’s fans who would have been totally unprepared for the Heart of Darkness-tale the actor undertakes in The Beach, which perhaps deserved to be called Apocalypse Now 2: Beach Vacation.

SCREAM 3: An underrated, post-modern deconstruction (2000 in Film #5)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Wes Craven’s threequel, Scream 3

Did we all misjudge Scream 3? That was the question on my lips by the end of rewatching Wes Craven’s threequel to Scream, one of the defining horror movies—indeed movies generally—of the 1990’s, taking a post-modern blade to horror tropes and conventions and slicing through them with abandon.

The first Scream was released in 1996, a year after the nadir example of The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth Halloween film that suggested the slasher, and the horror franchise machine in general, was bloated and tired. Scream, coasting on a wave of self-reflective pop-cultural analysis, balanced fresh scares and incisive comedy to create a new horror movie icon in Ghostface, the costume that disguised the very human killers immersed in the tropes and cinematic beats of horror movies. Scream 2, while less effective, took a knife to the horror sequel, building on the mythology of the Woodsboro murders of the original while observing the repeating narrative ideas in follow-ups. It made sense, given Scream was all about upending the horror origin story, to deconstruct the storytelling symbols of horror sequels. Every Halloween has it’s Halloween II, right?

Scream 3 naturally extends this same deconstruction to the horror trilogy, commenting from a metatextual standpoint about endings. One wonders if there was a self-knowing irony in this statement, certainly when it comes to horror; many of the most successful horror franchises – the aforementioned Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St etc… – all extended beyond three movies, stretching and sprawling out to innumerable sequels designed to extend the menace, often for box office returns. Scream itself would be no different – Scream 4 arrives by 2011, with a TV series a few years later. Scream 3 therefore ends up a moot point, a concluding chapter to a series that will eventually be revived, a property with as much cultural cache as the traditional slasher franchises it lampooned and deconstructed.

Yet we maybe have treated Scream 3 with too much scorn. With distance, though not on a par with its predecessors, it works in context with the films that came before.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Neo-noir, near enough a bore (2000 in Film #4)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Stephan Elliot’s oddball thriller Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder will possibly go down in cinema history for the dubious honour of being the first movie to be graded F via the Cinema Score ranking system.

Established in 1979, Cinema Score is a market research firm based in Las Vegas who survey film audiences to rate their viewing experiences with letter grades, report the results, and forecast box office receipts based on the data. In 2017, Kevin Lincoln for Vulture, in the wake of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! being added to this negatively auspicious list, brought to light the 19 films since 1999 that rest in a category of, technically based on audience responses, the absolute worst of the worst, suggesting that a common denominator was the failed auteur project and many of the entries—films such as Mother! or Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris or Andrew Dominik’s Killing Me Softly—got an unfair shake. For pictures such as those, it’s true. There is no way they should be on a list like this.

Eye of the Beholder is not one of those films.

DOWN TO YOU: A Millennial Romance (2000 in Film #3)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

To begin, released over the weekend of January 21st, Kris Isacsson’s romantic comedy Down to You

In many respects, Down to You must have seemed like a slam dunk of a proposition in 1999, with the hottest new production studio in Miramax front-lining two recognisable fresh faces from hit movies in a teen baiting romantic comedy. From our vantage point, produced as it is by the Weinstein brothers, it leaves a sourer taste in the mouth. 

It isn’t fair to blame writer/director Kris Isacsson, this being his only feature, or stars Freddie Prinze. Jr or Julia Stiles. Nor indeed is Down to You a horrendous movie through our modern, proportionally liberal-minded prism – indeed in many respects it’s quite a sweet natured picture with it’s heart in the right place. It is, however, cynical; attempting to both cash-in on the traditional romantic comedy genre and the revived interest in the teen movie, thanks heavily to 1999’s mega hit American Pie. While Down to You is not a gross-out comedy from exactly the same ilk, by any means, it is impossible to divorce it from the trends of an era where Miramax were combining their indie sensibility with pop-culture hits and brewing them up with attractive, young stars of the day, principally for the purposes of profit.

Down to You was the biggest box office hit of the January weekend it was released but very quickly collapsed in on itself, not even making back its modest, if not entirely threadbare, budget. You can honestly see why.

THE HURRICANE: A powerful case of injustice lacking punch (2000 in Film #1)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

To begin, released over New Year 1999-2000, Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane

There is perhaps a little bit of cheating going on by including The Hurricane in a collection of 2000 movies, given it was released on December 29th, 1999. It is more of a bridge, notable as the major cinematic offering over Millennium Eve; a film that sits between cinema’s first and second centuries.

1999 was last year celebrated across film culture as among the greatest years in cinema history, with a whole range of retrospectives from articles to books to podcasts devoted to its fusion of high-concept event movies, powerful franchise films, and the big-budget legitimising of the Sundance indie-darling filmmakers who would build their careers on some of that year’s defining works. The Wachowski Sisters with The Matrix, David Fincher’s gut-punch adaptation of Fight Club, Sam Mendes’ now tainted American Beauty and Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling Magnolia lined up against George Lucas reviving the Star Wars franchise with The Phantom Menace, Pixar’s animated marvel Toy Story 2 and the blockbuster romance of Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill.

It was, looking back, a remarkable year to close out cinema’s formative century. The year 2000 was always going to struggle in its shadow and, truthfully, struggle it does. This is a year in which Mission Impossible 2 is the most profitable box office hit. A year not without its triumphs, among them Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but beyond them little that truly remains iconic at a distance in the manner we look back at 1999 and see around the corner The Sixth Sense or The Blair Witch Project or so on and so on. And if any film marks this transition, manages to serve as a pointer to how 2000 will struggle to carve out the same kind of historical legacy as the year before it, that film is surely Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane.

As, while by no means a poor piece of cinema, beyond the most ardent supporters of Denzel Washington, it struggles to truly define itself in any meaningful way.

From the Vault #22: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen arrives in cinemas, is from August 18th, 2015…

From an impossibly cool, jazzy song over the Cold War scene setting opening credits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sets its stall out right from the very beginning as two things: a classy, retro stylish spy romp and very much a Guy Ritchie film.

It’s taken a *long* time to bring Sam Rolfe’s cult 60’s TV series, a slightly forgotten phenomenon of its time which capitalised on the James Bond obsession of the age (which of course never quite went away), to fruition – for years it was in the hands of multiple writers and directors. Quentin Tarantino almost made it in the mid-90’s but opted (perhaps wisely) for Jackie Brown instead, while Steven Soderbergh perhaps came the closest with George Clooney headlining, but let it go with concerns he couldn’t make it work with the budget offered.

In hindsight, Ritchie is probably the best fit for the stylistics in play here, a director always with one eye on style over substance with another eye on how to fuse a set piece with a river of cheeky, knowing comedy. What he succeeds in doing here is updating a property most modern audiences won’t be familiar with into an equally modern sensibility, while never losing touch with the 60’s retro beats and character interplay between leading West meets East characters Napoleon Solo, gentleman thief turned super spy, and Ilya Kuryakin, strong humourless Russian bear with anger problems.

It may be as deep as a puddle, but splashing around hasn’t been this enjoyable in a while.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

Given how powerfully The Wrath of Khan ends, it is easy to miss the beauty in it, certainly in terms of how perfectly it caps off a character journey for Admiral James T. Kirk that we’ve witnessed almost from minute one. It may be Spock who dies in The Wrath of Khan, but the film unquestionably throughout is about Kirk.

It is also hard to overestimate how much of a shock Spock’s death might have been at the time. Characters like Spock didn’t die. You didn’t kill off someone like Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek had emerged from an era of largely safe, colourful, now even kitsch television in which America reflected its aspirational virtues for the post-war future in the 1960’s in heroes. Kirk. Bruce Wayne. Jim Phelps. Cinema had James Bond or Matt Helm. Morally flawed or compromised at times they might have been, but they were designed to save us from the hopeless devastation a generation had lived through. Star Trek’s heroes would fight battles, defeat foes, explore new worlds, but they would always at the end finish on TV with a little joke or the acknowledgement that they’ll be back next week for another adventure.

Even The Motion Picture, which tones down the colour and comedy of The Original Series to depict a post-Watergate, late-1970’s cooler vision of Starfleet’s future, saw Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise—with Spock having regained his purpose as a Starfleet officer—warp away toward a sequel. The human adventure, after all, was just beginning. Nicholas Meyer’s sequel is an incredibly humanistic film but it acknowledges that with humanity, with hope, has to come the balance of pain, and of sacrifice. While Kirk’s arc of spiritual rebirth has a resolutely Christian bent, Spock giving his life to save the Enterprise makes him the Christ figure who saves the crew from Khan’s defeated Devil. Kirk’s first best destiny is to lead, is to find his way back to himself, and to do that he must lose someone he takes for granted for much of The Wrath of Khan. His anchor. His best friend.

To even contemplate such a remarkable ending to a story like this proves just how special The Wrath of Khan is. That ending of Avengers: Endgame? It wouldn’t exist without what The Wrath of Khan dared to try.

From the Vault #21: STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 20th, 2017, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.

Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.

The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.