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Romancing the Stone

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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Blu-Ray Review: THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

After Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but long before Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, John Huston sailed down river with The African Queen, his charming adaptation of C. S. ‘Horatio Hornblower’ Forester’s novel about a prim British missionary teaming up with the grizzled captain of the titular tramp steamer to combat vicious Germans deep in Africa in World War One.

Who do you cast in such roles? Why, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, of course! If you can put to one side the improbability of the southern drawling Hepburn, about as American as can be, playing the sister of the pompous and delightfully British colonial Robert Morley, The African Queen offers much to enjoy. Hepburn had already achieved screen greatness in the 30’s and this would serve as one of several comebacks across ensuing decades, but Bogie was arguably here at the height of a career buoyed by Casablanca and set to be tragically cut short by the end of the 1950’s. Huston nevertheless understands putting these two together is celluloid dynamite; a heady fusion of charismatic big screen prowess as Hollywood sailed into the last decade of its Golden Age of stars, studios and old-fashioned vehicles.

That being said, The African Queen has inspired so much over the last seventy years, it provides a template for the romantic comedy adventure that would be replicated down the decades, be it Robert Zemeckis with Romancing the Stone or even Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hepburn and Bogart are the classic reluctant pairing thrown together, who fall in love amidst great adversity.

Blu-Ray Review: Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars epitomises both the end of a depressed, cynical 1970’s for America and the birth of a gaudy, loud, colourful 1980’s.

The used car salesman is one of the almost cliched examples of textbook hucksterism in the Western world, we are almost programmed to distrust the line of fast-talking, buddy buddy technique exuded here by Kurt Russell’s salesman Rudy Russo. Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale rely on that textual assumption on the audience’s part to sell Used Cars, which pits Rudy’s aspirational salesman and his ageing, low-fi boss Luke against their rival, over the road, slick car sales operation led by Luke’s loud and nasty twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs (both parts being played by veteran character actor Jack Warden). It’s a traditional high concept comedic set up, with the audience designed to root for Rudy’s crooked underdog as he tries to stick it to an even more crooked Man.

Used Cars, in that respect, works as a piece both then and indeed now. We are not short of salesmanship and crooked hucksterism in our modern age, and Rudy’s aspirations to run for state Senate and combine his penchant for selling dodgy cars with a political bent feel particularly acute given the White House is currently home to the biggest con man in modern history. Released during the Carter Administration, the short period of a lesser-known President who inherited the shock of Nixon’s disgrace and a subsequent economic downturn, Used Cars has one eye on the glitzy rhetoric and showmanship of the coming Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberal approach mixed with a halcyon yearning for a simpler, greater America, ushered in an era in which the Rudy Russo’s of the world would profit while millions still suffer the consequences today.

While a comedy of its time, and one which has lost some punch over time, Used Cars still makes sense, when it could have ended up lost to the ages.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising. It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just *the* signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.