Category Archives: 2000

Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


Advertisements

Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)

If Unbreakable wasn’t a one hour and forty-six minute self-aggrandizement from wannabe mainstream-auteur (notice, not mainstream auteur) Shyamalan, it’d somehow be even worse. Because at least if Shyamalan is intentionally doing all these things, making all these choices, it’s a cohesive flop. If he’s not, if the mishmash elements are actually mishmash (like, you know, third-billed Robin Wright’s existence), if he really doesn’t think the sixth grade meets screenwriting manuals script is amazing, if there’s not a point to all those crane shots–usually shattering ceilings–then Unbreakable is even worse. And you don’t want it to be even worse because you gave it those 106 minutes, when you should’ve stopped at the opening text giving statistics on the comic book hobby and industry in the year 2000.

Or at least when the next scene of the movie is about a baby being born in a department store in 1961. The newborn has broken arms and legs. There’s almost the plot possibility the all-white store staff did something to the black mom (Charlayne Woodard) and baby. Attending physician Eamonn Walker certainly thinks something happened.

But then the action jumps ahead to the present, with Bruce Willis sitting on a train. He’s a quiet enough guy–totally bald–wearing a suit, but he does then proceed to take-off his wedding ring to flirt with the hottie who sits down next to him. Charmlessly flirt. In an exaggerated sad, creepy way so you know he’s harmless. And it’s not like he leaves the ring off after she bails.

Oh, before I forget. The greatest tragedy of the film is that time jump, because it’s the last time Walker’s in the movie and he gives the only decent performance. Wright’s performance isn’t her fault, but it’s still not good.

But instead you sat through the failed train pickup. Then things start getting exciting when Willis realizes the train’s going really, really fast. Then they stop getting exciting. And so ends the last building of dramatic tension in the film. And Shyamalan is going to make you suffer for sticking with it. No more rising tension. Ever. Not even when Shyamalan moves the camera around really fast to show you you’re supposed to be feeling the rising tension.

Instead it’s about one hour and forty minutes of humorless, joyless moping from everyone involved. I was going to say there’s nothing technically accomplished about the film–while Shyamalan’s hilariously pedestrian Panavision composition isn’t cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s fault, Serra had a duty to the human optical nerve not to do some of these things; similarly, editor Dylan Tichenor didn’t come up with the tone but he executed it. But production designer Larry Fulton does do a fine job creating, at least, Willis and Wright’s house, which is a miserable place you can’t imagine anyone ever said a kind word to one another much less had a holiday meal or birthday party. Wright doesn’t even get to exist in the house without Willis inviting her into the story.

Oh, right. Wright and Willis are breaking up because he’s too distant from her and son Spencer Treat Clark (who really ought to be the worst performance in the film but isn’t because Samuel L. Jackson; but in any fair universe, Clark would be the worst). Only we don’t find out why they’re breaking up for like an hour, until they’re getting back together.

Sorry, I’m forgetting. Willis’s train crashes and everyone dies except him and comic book art gallery dealer Samuel L. Jackson mysteriously contacts him with an unsigned note on his car. Has Willis ever been sick. He hasn’t ever been sick, something Willis finds really weird when he thinks about it so he goes to see Jackson. Jackson thinks Willis is a superhero. Only they never say superhero, they just say hero because Shyamalan is a serious important filmmaker and somehow saying superhero would make the whole thing silly.

Jackson is the baby from the first scene grown up. He has osteogenesis imperfecta; his bones are fragile. The kids who regularly assaulted him growing up called him “Mr. Glass.” He owns an art gallery with terrible drawings of superheroes. Not terrible like they’re fighting gross monsters, terrible like no one on the film had access to actual… drawings. Superhero or otherwise. It’s funny?

Anyway, Jackson tells Willis he’s a superhero because comic books are at least based somewhat in fact when describing superheroes. Jackson’s got this obnoxious history of comics monologue starting in Ancient Egypt, which is really, really, really dumb. Like silly dumb and inaccurate would make more sense if Shuster and Siegel created Superman after seeing a meteor fall. But there’s no Shuster or Siegel or the actual history of superhero comics because, well, Shyamlan’s script is really bad, but also because DC Comics had zero participation in the film. Despite Jackson’s favorite comics looking like DC Comics–what kid wouldn’t run to the corner in 1968 to get the latest Active Comics starring Slayer–in the logo designs, the comics themselves are exceptionally inept. Later on, in comic shops, Marvel Comics appear, which is funny since the final line in the movie is a freaking Superman reference.

Anyway.

Willis thinks Jackson is crazy but then Jackson stalks him at work and soon Willis is thinking maybe he is a superhero. He and estranged son Clark bond over his possible superpowers. It’s a little less affecting after Willis reveals he (Willis, the dad) blames his son for the estrangement, which isn’t really an estrangement so much as Willis is unhappy because he’s not out there being a superhero. Man needs his purpose.

Woman needs her purpose too and Wright’s purpose is to fall back in love with Willis. She fell out because… it’s never clear. The scenes would make more sense if Wright and Willis barely knew one another, not raised a tween together. Wright also has zero relationship with Clark, which is weird because Willis is supposed to be such a bad dad, but when Clark and Wright are in a scene together it’s like they haven’t even been introduced.

Shyamalan’s directorial badness isn’t just in the composition or pacing, whatever he told those actors to do during filming, they should have refused. Because it’s terrible.

No one’s worse than Jackson. Well, Clark, but on a technicality of sorts. Jackson’s got no character whatsoever. He exists for Willis. He’s intentionally unlikable (unless Shyamalan thinks the scene where Jackson hates kids makes him likable), every delivery is flat because he’s so serious, but then he occasionally makes good jokes. Charmlessly. Because no one’s allowed to have any charm in Unbreakable, which is fair. It’s a charm vacuum.

Willis’s performance is bad too. Though less funny because he has less to do than Jackson in a lot of ways, even though he’s the lead and finds out he might be Superman. Well, not Superman. He might be unbreakable and have some psychic powers. Or he just has impressions, which play out as flashback or flash forward scenes with crane shots, which aren’t impressions, but Shyamalan never gets into it too much because it’d be nerdy to define Willis’s power set. Unbreakable is serious stuff, after all.

And, hey, Willis does eventually get to do a hero arc. After ignoring a racist physical assault on a black woman and a white woman getting raped, he finds someone he does want to save. A white guy. Will Super Willis be able to take on the villain, who is stronger than Willis so hopefully Willis doesn’t have super strength, but whatever.

Lousy, lousy, lousy–and entirely inappropriate–epic-sized music from James Newton Howard.

Unbreakable is a dismal experience. But, hey, it’s not like there weren’t signs right away. And it just gets worse. And worse. And worse. And then it’s five minutes in and there are 101 more to go.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Eduardo Serra; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn), Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn), and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother).


RELATED

The Window (2000, Jono Oliver)

The Window opens with a crowd on the street, looking up. There’s a title card, so it’s a good bet they’re all looking at a window. Pretty soon the cops show up–it’s set in Flatbush, Brooklyn–and ask what’s going on. Some people see Jesus up in the window, some people don’t. But it’s a big crowd; the people who see it are inspired (like senior Sarallen), other people are just hanging out. Responding cops Rosalyn Coleman and Marcuis Harris are divided too. Coleman doesn’t see anything, Harris kind of sees it. But they decide they need to do something, so they head up to the apartment (meeting Sarallen’s grandson, Chad Christopher Tucker, on the way–he doesn’t see it).

In the apartment there’s a similar divide. Husband Eric R. Moreland is just trying to enjoy his weekend, eat some lunch, watch a game. Wife Cheryl Monroe got home as the crowd was starting to gather and saw the Jesus too. So she’s calling up people from the church to come over–pastor Craig T. Williams is hilarious–while Moreland suffers losing his day.

Eventually Coleman decides the window’s coming out. Harris isn’t in complete agreement, but he’s fine with it. Meanwhile, a news crew has shown up and the window is on TV. And there are more cops, including Romi Dias who wants Coleman to hold off on taking out the window until her grandmother comes down to see it.

Writer and director Oliver keeps a relatively light tone and nimbly moves through the discussions of faith and, well, grime. Whenever the action isn’t on the street, where the film listens in on the crowd’s reactions (or just shows them), usually with a humorous bent (though everyone knows how much it means to Sarallen), Coleman’s the lead. And she’s a great lead. For most of The Window she operates with a quiet exasperation as she’s not only got to keep the variety of regular people in check, she’s also got partner Harris mildly aggravating the situation, not to mention Dias loudly aggravating it.

Besides Coleman, also exasperated husband Moreland gets the most to do. The film often plays Coleman and Moreland off one another, something the actors and Oliver handle beautifully. Oliver has this single shot in the bathroom–Jesus is in the bathroom window–with the camera pointing away from the window and it’s full of people. Seven at one point. And the emphasis has to bounce all around.

Outside Coleman and Harris’s initial discussion, Oliver’s script doesn’t spend any time on the questions the window (and what people see in it) raise. It’s present throughout, but the action is too busy with the practicality. The cops want to break up the crowd, Coleman’s going the fastest route.

Everything’s good throughout–Michael Pearlman’s photography is phenomenal, great music from David Abir (who eventually takes the whole thing on his shoulders)–but it gets even better once Coleman (and Oliver) really start dealing with things. Without any exposition, just reaction. It’s all about Coleman’s performance. And Oliver’s direction.

The Window’s kind of gently spectacular. Or more, first it’s gentle and good, then it’s quietly spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jono Oliver; director of photography, Michael Pearlman; edited by Daniel Carey; music by David Abir; production designer, Eric Oliver.

Starring Rosalyn Coleman (Officer Briggs), Marcuis Harris (Officer Turner), Eric R. Moreland (Lester), Cheryl Monroe (Lucy), Craig T. Williams (Brother Herbert), Virginia McKinzie (Sister Mary), Chad Christopher Tucker (Terrence), Robert Hatcher (Reverend Sinclair), Romi Dias (Officer Newman), Brian Cahill (Officer Doyle), and Sarallen (Mrs. Davis).


RELATED

Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


RELATED