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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?

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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.

DRACULA: a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent

The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.

In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.

As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.

Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.

Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

Alias – ‘Q&A’ (1×17)

While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.

Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.

It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.

Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.