Tag Archives: Michael Douglas

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).


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Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Haywire’s plotting is meticulous and exquisite. And entirely a budgetary constraint. It’s a globe trotting, action-packed spy thriller with lots of name stars. The action in the globe trotted areas, for instance, is more chase scenes than explosions. Haywire doesn’t blow up Barcelona, lead Gina Carano chases someone down the streets. She doesn’t land a 747 in Dublin, she has a chase scene on the rooftops. And director Soderbergh does phenomenally with those sequences. While Carano’s in real danger and Soderbergh’s shooting realistic DV, David Holmes’s music riffs back to sixties spy movie music and contextualizes things. You still get to have fun watching the spy movie. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s just a different kind of spy movie.

One where the action set pieces are what Carano does, whether it’s stunts or fight scenes, she’s the action. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs space out the action sequences, sometimes not actually going with a big Carano sequence in the situation. Sometimes the film focuses on her adversaries or allies. Soderbergh and Dobbs do a lot of action thriller without a lot of money.

The film starts with Carano–former Marine and spy-mercenary–is on the run. We don’t know from who, because when Channing Tatum shows up to bring her in, they don’t say the character’s name. It becomes obvious pretty soon, but Soderbergh and Dobbs go through all the motions to give Haywire a conspiracy thriller foundation. They don’t have time to engage with it–or, presumably, money–but it’s part of the film’s texture. Some creative decisions in Haywire just plump up the film. Soderbergh’s not trying to make a low budget spy thriller, he’s making a spy thriller with a low budget. He’s not… chintzing.

So after the first Carano action sequence, the film gets into flashback and explains Barcelona and Dublin, which keep coming up in dialogue. They seem less destinations for major spy intrigue and more stops on a tour group’s European vacation. Nicely, both sequences really pay off. They live up to the hype, even if the hype was really nonspecific so Dobbs and Soderbergh could up the mysteriousness.

Then it’s the flashback catching up to present and the film resolving. Ninety-three minutes of not entirely lean–though subplot-free–narrative. Carano works her way through various other spies and government officials. They’re sort of in glorified cameos, but it never feels like it. The magic of the pacing. Bill Paxton, for example, is in a cameo role. He’s in two scenes. One on the phone. But Dobbs and Soderbergh pace it where Paxton feels like an active supporting player. It’s impressive to see executed. Paxton’s fine–it’s a cameo, he’s got nothing to do–but the feat is how the filmmakers pull it off.

Paxton’s Carano’s dad. Ewan McGregor is her spies for hire boss, Tatum is a fellow spy for hire, Michael Fassbender is a fellow (but British) spy for hire. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as government guys who hire spies for hire. Anthony Brandon Wong and Mathieu Kassovitz are the guys the spies for hire go after. No one trusts anyone else. Something Dobbs and Soderbergh take their time addressing, which shifts the film from spy action to spy thriller, both for the film itself and Carano’s understanding of her situation.

So Carano.

As dubbed by Laura San Giacomo.

Yes, really.

Physically she’s great. The stunts, the fighting. It’s all nearly silent–trained killers don’t exchange banter in the seedy international spy ring underbelly of Dublin–so it’s just the fight, just the choreographer, just Carano and the actors and the stunt fighters. The fights are excellent. Soderbergh’s editing and photography, the fighters, Carano–great.

Carano dramatically? She’s really likable. Sympathetic. But the performance is hinky; the dubbing explains it. Carano’s dialogue is already terse so San Giacomo doesn’t really build a character. And the comedy moments are a little off. But it’s fine. Carano does well. The physicality of her performance is spot on. Soderbergh builds the movie–tone-wise–around her action sequences. The chase in middle flashback informs how something in the first act present was done. Exquisite. Always exquisite.

The cameos are all good. Bandares and Douglas have the most fun, though different kinds of fun. Tatum’s good. McGregor’s good. Fassbender’s more just effective. He’s a glorified cameo too. The movie’s Carano, Tatum, and McGregor.

Under pseudonym, Soderbergh also shot and edited Haywire. Technically it’s great. There’s great editing, there’s great photography, seperate sometimes, together sometimes. He does some excellent work in Haywire. With Holmes’s music an essential support. Holmes gets to foreshadow the slight change in tone for Haywire; how the filmmaking, narrative, and music shift gears–the music goes first.

There’s a lot of awesome to Haywire. It’s just an action movie on a budget with a problematic lead performance. The film does well not drawing attention–or even acknowledging–its constraints. But they’re there nonetheless.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, and directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; music by David Holmes; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Gina Carano (Mallory Kane), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Michael Douglas (Alex Coblenz), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), and Bill Paxton (John Kane).


THIS POST IS PART OF GIRL WEEK 2018 HOSTED BY WENDELL OF DELL ON MOVIES.


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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

Despite being in the first scene in the movie and sharing most of Paul Rudd’s scenes with him, Evangeline Lilly is definitely second in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The film gives her her own action scenes–some truly phenomenal ones–but very little agency. She’s entirely in support of dad Michael Douglas; even after it’s clear Douglas–in the past–was an egomaniac who hurt lots of people, it’s not like Lilly has any reaction to it. Or the film for that matter. During the scene maybe, with Rudd laughing about what a dick Douglas has always been, someone getting very upset remembering how Douglas treated them, Douglas looking bemused, and Lilly looking vacant. There are a few of those scenes and they really define the film’s dramatic qualities.

It doesn’t have many.

It’s got a lot of humorous qualities and a lot of charming ones, but not dramatic. Nothing ever gets as emotionally intense as the first act, in flashback (either straight flashback or dream sequence). Even when there’s all the danger in the world, as Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas race against time to save Lilly’s mother (and Douglas’s wife), Michelle Pfeiffer, from being trapped in the Quantum Zone. Realm. Sorry, Quantum Realm. There’s a lot of quantum things in Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s hard to keep track.

But the film isn’t about dramatic possibilities so much as good-natured, comedic special effects action ones. There’s this omnipresent theme about parents disappointing children–Douglas and Lilly, Rudd and his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), not to mention the villain (Hannah John-Kamen), who’s got her own father issues. But if the film never acknowledges it’s a theme, is it really a theme? The screenplay (by five screenwriters) never worries about it and director Reed really doesn’t narrative echoes. It’s not his thing. His thing is humor and pacing and the film excels at both of them.

Because, even with those five writers–including Rudd–it’s not like there’s much depth to characterizations. Walton Goggins is one of the villains and he’s basically doing a really broad caricature of Walton Goggins being in a Marvel movie as a Southern tech-gangster. Randall Park plays a goofy FBI agent who Rudd keeps on one-upping and it’s even broader. Michael Peña excels with similiar treatment; he’s always played for obvious laughs and Peña plays through, fully, successfully embracing it. Goggins and Park act obviously to the joke. Not Peña.

None of the leads have much heavy lifting either. Rudd and Lilly are so adorable–and find each other so utterly adorable–it’s hard not to enjoy every minute they spend together. Douglas is one note, but the script doesn’t really ask for much more. Pfeiffer does more in her two scenes than Douglas does in the entire film. And she doesn’t even do a lot.

Meanwhile, Larry Fishburne–as one of the many people Douglas screwed over in the past–is able to bring some gravitas to his part. He takes it seriously, even when no one asks him to do so.

But none of it really matters because everyone’s really likable, including villain John-Kamen (far less Goggins, who’s nowhere near as funny as he needs to be to warrant so much plot import), and Ant-Man and the Wasp is full of delightful special effects action sequences. Whether it’s when Lilly is shrinking down and growing big to kick ass in fight scenes, flying all over the place, throwing people all over, or when it’s Rudd growing big instead of shrinking down and using a flatbed truck as a scooter. Reed and the screenwriters know where to find every laugh, every smile–it doesn’t hurt Rudd and daughter Fortson have such cute scenes. Opening on Lilly, making the movie about her missing mother, her lost childhood, it almost seems like it’s a movie about daughters. Oh, right, John-Kamen too. But it’s not. It’s about being cute and funny. It’s never even heartwarming when it’s not cute. There’s not much depth to it.

And, for a movie without much depth, it’s an awesome time. The special effects sequences alone–it isn’t just the fight scenes with awesome shrinking and growing effects, it’s sight gags and car chases and everything else (not to mention adorable giant ants). The film’s inventive as all hell. Except with John-Kamen’s villain, who’s not just occasionally invisible, but also immaterial. Her powers make narrative sense, Reed doesn’t visualize them as well as the rest.

By the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, you want another one. It’s a delightful, thoroughly competent amusement. Even if Christophe Beck’s score is never as good as it seems to be.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peyton Reed; screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dan Lebental and Craig Wood; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Shepherd Frankel; produced by Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard; released by Walt Disney Pictures

Starring Paul Rudd (Scott), Evangeline Lilly (Hope), Michael Douglas (Hank), Hannah John-Kamen (Ghost), Laurence Fishburne (Bill), Michael Peña (Luis), Abby Ryder Fortson (Cassie), Walton Goggins (Sonny Burch), Randall Park (Jimmy Woo), T.I. (Dave), David Dastmalchian (Kurt), Judy Greer (Maggie), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Janet).


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Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed)

Ant-Man is almost a lot of things. It’s almost a kids’ movie, but not quite–there’s a maturity to the material without it getting overly complex. It’s almost a heist planning movie, but director Reed can’t quite bring all the elements together. He does get them into the right place–the crew hanging out in a particular location and the crew being mismatched–but then he doesn’t spend any time with them.

Frankly, it makes Michael Douglas seem like he doesn’t want to spend the time with the other actors, which is unfortunate. There’s a lot of chemistry to the film, though it’s sometimes not where it should be. For example, even though Evangeline Lilly is fine in a thankless role (as Douglas’s daughter and star Paul Rudd’s love interest), she doesn’t have any romantic chemistry with Rudd. She works off his humor well, but she doesn’t connect quite right. Maybe because Rudd’s actually out of place with Douglas and Lilly; he’s far more comfortable awkwardly interacting with his kid (Abby Ryder Fortson), his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and the ex’s new boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale).

Rudd does fine with the rest, but it’s mostly just humor. His performance is downright sincere with the family stuff. With Douglas and Lilly? Reed uses Rudd for comic relief. It’s kind of weird, especially since Reed doesn’t set up those scenes for comic relief. It’s partially a script problem–Douglas’s character is too thin–but it’s also Reed’s inability to find a tone for the film.

And Ant-Man is a great looking film. Great photography from Russell Carpenter, great editing from Dan Lebental and Colby Parker Jr. There’s lots of amazing, unimaginable action–it’s about a guy who shrinks down to the size of an ant, after all. I don’t think anyone’s done miniaturization with excellent CG before.

Corey Stoll’s excellent as the villain, even though his character is thin too. There’s a lot of comic relief with Michael Peña as Rudd’s partner-in-crime. It’s silly and way too forced (hence Ant-Man almost being a kids’ movie–the humor is broad), but it doesn’t get in the way. Until the end, at least, when Ant-Man sacrifices its humanity to tie into the Marvel movie universe.

It’s also nice to see Wood Harris, even if he isn’t getting anything to do. He’s in good company. Ant-Man isn’t even Rudd’s show. It’s the special effects and the heartwarming message. It succeeds on both those counts, well enough to get a pass for its missteps.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peyton Reed; screenplay by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, based on a story by Wright and Cornish and the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Russell Carpenter; edited by Dan Lebental and Colby Parker Jr.; music by Christophe Beck; production designers, Shepherd Frankel and Marcus Rowland; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Paul Rudd (Scott Lang / Ant-Man), Michael Douglas (Dr. Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Abby Ryder Fortson (Cassie Lang), Judy Greer (Maggie Lang), Corey Stoll (Darren Cross / Yellowjacket), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Michael Peña (Luis), David Dastmalchian (Kurt), T.I. (Dave), Wood Harris (Gale) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon).


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