Reviews

Wonder Boys


Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Written by:Steven Kloves
Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jnr, Rip Torn, Richard Knox
Released: August 3, 2000
Grade: A

Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is an English Professor who’s in the process of writing a very lengthy novel.  His first, Arsonist’s Daughter, was a best-seller but it’s been seven years since its first publication and people are starting to question whether Grady still has what it takes as a writer.

It’s that time of year at the Pittsburgh university, where he teaches, for the annual literary festival.  Tripp’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Downey Jnr), has used it as an excuse to pop into town to quiz Tripp regarding his new novel.  Each year, the festival opens with a party at the home of the Chancellor, Sara Gaskell (McDormand) and her husband, Walter (Richard Thomas), whose head of the English Department.

Grady’s having an affair with Sara and tells her that his wife has just separated from him.  She fires back with the news that she’s pregnant, he is the father, and she’s not yet prepared to leave Walter.

Also at the function are Hannah Green (Holmes) and James Leer (Maguire), two of Tripp’s brightest English students.  Hannah’s always had a soft crush on Tripp and lives in the same campus building as the Professor.  James has always been mysterious in class and never interacts much with other students - he’s a loner.

As chance would have it, Tripp converses with James whilst smoking a joint on the Gaskell’s front lawn and a series of events is set off that would become a turning point in the lives off those around them.

The cast are all super and it’s hard to single out any performance.  Michael Douglas is dazzling and it’s great to see him in different role from his “norm”.  Frances McDormand is always a delight on screen and the moments she shares with Douglas are a tribute to two of the finest in the business - both Oscar winners.

Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville & The Cider House Rules) is the best young actor in Hollywood right now and shows his versatility tackling the role of James.  I was surprised as to how well he can play “stoned”.  Even Robert Downey Jnr is a joy to watch.  He actually missed the premiere of the film in the United States as he was in jail serving time for drug use.

Wonder Boys is one of the best movies of the year.  It’s the little things that make all the difference and director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) has produced a very sharp film.  The way he captures the rain and snow (which are prominent all through the film) is beautiful.  His ability to show university life in a realistic fashion is also a tribute.

This is a film not to be missed.  As Tripp says, “Nobody teaches a writer anything - you tell them what you know, you tell them to find their voice and stay with it”.  Great words, great story, great film.

     

The Patriot


Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by:Robert Rodat
Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Issacs
Released: July 20, 2000
Grade: C

The Revolutionary War stretched from 1775 through to 1783 as the American continent fought Great Britain for possession of thirteen colonies bordering the Atlantic Ocean.  Over 25,000 Americans and 10,000 British were killed over eight years.  On July 4, 1776, a Continental Congress was formed from delegates of each State, a Declaration of Independence was drafted and George Washington was named Chief of the Continental Army. 

The Patriot is a fictitious tale set against this war.  Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a war hero from the past who now lives quietly with his seven children in South Carolina.  As the English troops (known as the redcoats) approach, Ben will not waiver from his principals - he refuses to return to battle and believes the war can still be won with words.

Ben’s eldest son, Gabriel (Ledger), is now 17 and against strong wishes from his father enlists and heads off into engagement.  As the English continue to advance under the “gentlemanly” command of General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), hundreds of Americans are sacrificed and the situation worsens.

The redcoats soon reach Ben’s home where in a confrontation with Colonel William Tavington (Jason Issacs), his 15-year-old son Thomas (Gregory Smith) is killed.  In true cinematic fashion, Ben finds his passion for war reignited and assembles a militia army to seek revenge on the English and particularly, Colonel Tavington.  As he says, “I will kill you before this war is over”.

Film is a powerful medium that is not deserving of The Patriot.  It has all the plot and dialogue traits from the tiring action garbage we’ve witnessed recently in films such as Armageddon and Gone In 60 Seconds.  The fact it deals with a real war is irrelevant.  It is insulting to watch a film that shows such reckless regard for the truth.

The portrayal of both the African-Americans and French is disgraceful.  A token character is represented from each of these races and are included in the film to glorify and show just how perfect white-Americans were.  Throw in a souvenir love story between Heath Ledger and Lisa Brenner to please the romantics and a few funny characters (all with their moment of glory) and you’re looking at a film that has little to do with patriotism.

It is overwhelmingly frustrating viewing experience.  Everything is so contrived and predictable.  Colonel Tavington is so over-the-top evil that he exhibits qualities resembling that of a James Bond villain.  Gabriel is the perfect son who always seems to avoid the perils of war until the incident that you know is coming.  Some moments are senselessly violent and seem completely out of place.  Amazingly, director Roland Emmerich has created a film that requires no thought whatsoever.  The Americans are portrayed as the “good guys”, the British are the “bad guys” and any grey area is non-existent.  In the packed cinema in which I saw the film, you could hear whispers from the audience predicting future developments and when they’re always right, it’s not a good sign.

$100m was spent on wonderful costumes, beautiful sets, a magnificent music score and quality actors.  All designed to provide the most realistic impression of the war imaginable.  How easy it can be to ruin all the good work with a despairing script.  Is a line such as “I’m going to kill you before this war is over” really necessary?  Why not tell us the ending?  The seriousness of the cause just makes it all the more pathetic.

     

X-Men


Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by:Christopher McQuarrie, Josh Whedon
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry
Released: July 13, 2000
Grade: B

Humans are evolving and a race of “mutants” now exists.  These people are special and have singular qualities that are vastly superior to regular people.  There is a campaign to treat them as equals but general consensus dictates that they cannot be trusted and should be eliminated.

So what kind of qualities am I talking about?  Professor X (Stewart) is their aged leader and has tremendous psychopathic abilities.  Wolverine (Jackman) has tremendous physical strength and metal claws protruding from his knuckles.  Storm (Berry) can influence the weather.  Cyclops (Marsden) can shoot lasers from his eyes.  You get the picture?

On the other hand, there is an evil race of mutants led by the powerful Magneto (McKellan) who want to destroy all humans so that the mutants can dominate the Earth.  When Magneto comes across a very important mutant named Rogue (Paquin), he discovers the secret to fulfilling his objectives and thus it’s up to the “good” mutants to try to save the human race.

It seems most every comic book and cartoon series has made its venture to the big screen and X-Men has come across with some heavy financial backing.  It’s a big cast with some elaborate special effects that are well crafted.  It’s quite dark and has striking similarities with the original Batman (released way back in 1989) only with more commercialism.

The plot has substance but is confusing at times and you’ll have to be paying close attention to keep up.  It takes a long time to set up the characters and once the action gets started and the interest builds, it’s all but over.  Over 45 minutes of the film was cut by the studio to try to make the film faster and more audience-friendly.  Without having seen the extra footage, I feel sure it would have made X-Men a better view.

A bigger annoyance is that the ending so obviously sets up a sequel that it’s hard to feel you’ve reached a conclusion.  It’s like we’ve seen part one and we’ll have to wait a couple of years to find out how it ends.  I guess it’s similar to reading a comic book in that the super villain always manages to elude them so that more adventures can be created.  I shouldn’t have to pay to see the next movie because technically I haven’t seen the end of the first one.

I was surprised to see Bryan Singer as director given his previous two projects - The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil.  Singer’s direction is intense and creates strong interest and suspense.  The X-Men aren’t exactly household names and Singer has created a film that will generate heavy interest in the franchise.

It’s always nice to see summer blockbusters that aren’t just plastic characters acting cheesy storylines.  Whilst not covering any new ground, X-Men is simple entertainment that’ll sucker you in for a couple of hours.  Take plenty of popcorn.

     

The Straight Story


Directed by: David Lynch
Written by:John Roach, Mary Sweeney
Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, Everett McGill
Released: July 16, 2000
Grade: A

Laurens is a small, quiet town in Iowa.  It is home for 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Farnsworth).  Alvin can barely walk (he requires two canes) and can no longer drive.  His daughter Rose takes care of him as life is slowly fading away.

When he receives a phone call bringing news that his brother has had a stroke, he decides it is time to go see him in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.  They have not spoken in ten years but Alvin feels that with little time left for both of them, it’s time to bury the hatchet.

Just how exactly is Alvin going to travel the 300 odd miles to Mt. Zion?  By a ride-on lawnmower.  It’s about the only thing Alvin can still drive and he sets off, determined to make the trip on his own.  It is his own way of paying penance for his failure to reconcile with his brother all those years ago.

Along the way, Alvin meets an assortment of characters and his kindness and decency touch their lives.  Overnight he sleeps in a small trailer towed behind the mower and eats nothing much more than wieners for the whole trip.  Like old folk are, he was determined to do it his way.

This is a true story.  The real Alvin Straight travelled this journey back in 1994 before passing away in 1996 and the film is dedicated to his memory.

It’s hard to believe that David Lynch is behind the camera for this G-rated flick from Walt Disney.  When you consider Lynch’s most famous works - Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and the TV series Twin Peaks, you would think a film like The Straight Story would be the last project he would tackle.

Lynch, boosted by cinematography from Freddie Francis and music from Angelo Badalamenti has painted a picturesque portrait of Southern America.  The film is a magical tapestry of sights and sounds.  Lynch, enhancing the viewing experience, captures everything from a beautiful sunset to the sound of a harvester with immaculate precision.

Given the material, this film could so easily have been a tiring bore that is even more credit to the talent of David Lynch and the crew.  Richard Farnsworth, who this year became the oldest actor in history to receive an Academy Award nomination, is wonderful as Alvin.  It was the role of a lifetime and it’s funny that he’s had to wait 79 years for the opportunity.

     

The Skulls


Directed by: Rob Cohen
Written by:John Pogue
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Hill Harper, Christopher McDonald
Released: July 6, 2000
Grade: C+

Luke (Jackson) is a rower, scholar and well-respected member of his university.  He puts in the hard yards but just doesn’t have the financial backing to attend the college that will provide him with a dream legal education.

There is one answer to Luke’s problems.  An exclusive, secret society known as the Skulls has the reputation of providing for one’s future but obtaining membership is harder than cracking the most secure safe.

Luke is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when he is preselected as a candidate for membership and put through a series of tests to evaluate his loyalty.  He is paired with Caleb (Walker), with whom he develops a bond.  Everything is perfect for Luke until his best friend is found hanged in his room and suspicions are aroused.  Does this have anything to do with his association with the Skulls?

The Skulls is an attempt to break away from the traditional teen mould of soppy romance.  It has its thrills but gets bogged down in its oversimplification.  It’s disrespectful to the audience that studios think lowly enough of our intelligence to be taken in by this film.  It could have been so much better.

The cast does little to save the script with Jackson playing the good guy (as always) with his familiar style. Walker gets the juicier role and makes more of it.

It is rumoured that organisations like this do exist all over America and that the CIA was founded in such a way.  That may be the case but given the bunch of yuppie saps that are members of the Skulls, I’d rather not be a member.

     

Whatever It Takes


Directed by: David Hubbard
Written by:Mark Schwahn
Starring: Jodi Lyn O’Keffe, Shane West, Marla Sokoloff, Manu Intiraymi, Aaron Paul, Julia Sweeney, James Franco
Released: July 13, 2000
Grade: B+

It’s time to head down that familiar road - an American teen romantic comedy.  Ryan (West) and Maggie (Sokoloff) have been next-door neighbours and best friends for years.  Not exactly part of the “popular” club at school, they’re daily highlights seem to come from confiding in each other from their respective bedroom balconies.

Ryan yearns for Ashley (O’Keefe), the most popular girl at school who hasn’t looked twice at Ryan in their entire time at the school.  Ashley’s cousin, Chris (Franco), seems to have a soft spot for Maggie but Maggie finds him too much of a jock to be interested.  From all this, a compromise arises.  Ryan will help Chris win the affections of Maggie if Chris will help Ryan’s chances with Ashley.

Whether deliberate or accidental, Whatever It Takes seems vastly different from previous teen movies.  Firstly, the cast features no big name stars that works effectively since we are not seeing the same, usual actors in their repetitious roles (ala Freddie Prinze Jnr, Julia Stiles, etc).  Secondly, the characters seem to exhibit more human qualities than other films.  Sure they’re predictable but the dialogue and storyline is easier to swallow.

I’m sure the four leading stars are destined for further work.  All have lined up several projects for 2000 and keep an eye out for Sokoloff for her great work in one of TV’s best shows, The Practice.

Like one of my favourite teen flicks, 10 Things I Hate About You, Whatever It Takes’s best feature is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s not trying to answer life’s impossible questions and is a comedic tale of love-struck teenagers.  It seems almost all these films end with a prom and whilst Whatever It Takes is no exception, it throws up a few surprises including an extremely funny takeoff from Titanic.

We may start off down that familiar road but I ended up in a place I didn’t quite expect.  A teen comedy worth recommending?  Surprisingly, yes.