Rocky IV

“No pain!”

If you watch the film, you’re gonna hear that many, many times. But don’t believe it. There is pain in this third sequel to the Oscar-winning 1976 flick that launched Sylvester Stallone‘s career. It’s all about boxing, machismo and testosterone!

Man, I wish the 1980s would never have ended. Reagan, Rocky, Rambo… The President had balls, and so did the action heroes! Movies were brutal and music was cheesy. Oh man, do I miss the dramatic keyboards, raunchy guitars, pounding drums and corny lyrics. Movies didn’t have to be original or smart in that era. They just needed muscles, sweat and blood. Cool, I say. If you’re in the least familiar with my taste, you know that I’m the hugest fan of Schwarzenegger. Well, he was at his best in the ’80s, especially in 1985’s “Commando”. Three other great macho stars of the era were Stallone, Carl Weathers and Dolph Lundgren, who happen to all star in “Rocky IV”.

Ah, Rocky Balboa: his messed up boxer face, his strong will, his mumbling… Stallone ain’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s perfect as a dumb, macho boxer who has a hard-on for America. After facing champion Apollo Creed, Hulk Hogan and Mr T, Rocky is kinda retired. He’s happily living in his huge house with his Adrian, his son, his bro-in-law Paulie and his… robot!?! Don’t ask. He also likes to bond with Apollo, who has become his buddy now that they’re not adversaries in the ring anymore. He’s played by Carl “Action Jackson” Weathers, the coolest black stud since the Blaxploitation era. He’s hilariously arrogant, macho and all-American. He hasn’t been in a ring for 5 years, but the perfect opportunity to make a come-back has just come along.

A giant, freakishly strong Russian named Ivan Drago is coming to America, claiming he’s the greatest athlete in the world. He’s extremely tall and large, and he’s all Aryan with his short, spiky blond hair, his gray eyes and his steep cheekbones. Dolph Lundgren ain’t an actor, he’s a mountain of muscles! So Apollo and Drago face each other in a hugely hyped show. America is proud and loud, and James Brown himself sings the pride of the nation and its representative in shorts and gloves. Tough luck: at the end of the fight, tables have turned and Creed’s dead meat, leaving his pal Rocky with the need to avenge his death by facing Drago. The decisive fight is set on Christmas eve, and it will be held in Russia. Balboa will have to train harder than ever to defeat Drago.

The film was written and directed by its star, Sylvester Stallone. Okay, he ain’t what you would call a serious filmmaker, but he does know how to put together an exciting flick. The film has practically no story, it’s one of the most fast-paced pictures I’ve ever seen. During 90 minutes, Stallone keeps the audience thrilled. His visual style is great. The movie is filled with close-ups of sweaty muscles, cool camerawork and extremely well edited sequences. And man, do I love the soundtrack: Hearts on Fire! No Easy Way Out! Burning Heart! All great ’80s pop that kick things up a notch during the countless montages the movie features.

But you know what? “Rocky IV” is about more than testosterone. It’s about the Cold War, the defeat of the big USA against the small Vietnam, the importance of going back to nature like the pilgrims… Symbolism, dude! But if you ask me, it’s mostly about 1985, a time when you could fill 90 minutes with nothing but machismo, patriotic propaganda and montage. No story… No pain!

Scary Movie

What the hell happened!?! How did a juvenile, disgusting comedy by the Wayans brothers, a satire of a satire at that, achieve to pull 42 millions in its opening week-end? When “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” did giant business last year, it was understandable: Mike Myers is a comic genius. But the Wayans? Aren’t they usually in TV shows that get canceled, second-rate action movies in which they play the sidekick to the star or dumb comedies? Did anybody bother to see Marlon Wayans‘ last movie, “Senseless”? I did, and though Marlon’s performance was sorta amusing, the film wasn’t even worth the time to review it, so I didn’t. What’s different about “Scary Movie”? Well, I guess it might be a case of being in synch with current audience tastes. Basically, this movie is “Scream” meets “There’s Something About Mary”, so talk about an easy sell!

By and large, what we get is an almost shot-for-shot remake of “Scream” mixed with “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, “Scream 2” as well as potshots at “The Blair Witch Project”, “The Sixth Sense” and “The Matrix”. Twentysomething hottie Anna Faris (who’s a hundred times more charismatic and fun than Neve Campbell by the way) stars as Cindy, a virginal girl-next door stalked by a mad killer with a Ghostface mask and a cell phone who has already slaughtered her schoolmate Drew (Carmen Electra). She figures it must be the pedestrian her friends and her hit with their car the previous year and dumped in the ocean, assuming he was dead.

And then… argh, what’s the point? This isn’t a movie where the story matters. The thread of a plot is just there to hold together a series of more or less effective skits filled with cheap jokes. There are no characters to speak off, just caricatures waiting to get killed: Jon Abrahams is Cindy’s horny boyfriend Bobby, Regina Hall is the obnoxious Black princess Brenda, Shawn Wayans is her closeted homosexual football player boyfriend Ray, Shannon Elizabeth is voluptuous beauty queen Buffy, Lochlyn Munro is her dude Greg. Then there’s Cheri Oteri as reporter Gail Hailstorm and Dave Sheridan as Deputy Doofy, a drooling retard whose last scene will delight Kevin Spacey fans. Last but not least is Marlon Wayans, who steals most of his scenes as the dimwitted pothead Shorty Meeks.

I think Markley described best the thing with “Scary Movie” in his review when he wrote that “it suffers from joke abundance. Every little gag can’t be so funny so in between moments of laughter the audience must sit through lame attempts at humor.” Exactly. I smiled a lot during the film (hehe, Carmen Electra farted), I chuckled a few times (loved Shawn Wayans’ Matthew Lillard impersonation!)… Then again, some gags just had me staring at the screen with disbelief at how idiotic they were (isn’t the “Blair Witch” snot scene embarrassingly unfunny?), and it gets repetitive after half a dozen fart jokes, oral sex jokes and gay jokes.

As for the gross-out, how-did the-MPAA-let-that-fly moments, I found them more shocking and gross than funny or clever. Try as he might, writer-director Keenen Ivory Wayans is no Farrelly brother. “Scary Movie” is sporadically amusing, and maybe worth seeing for that, but this isn’t a film that I’d want to see again like, say, the much more inventive and smart “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”.

Short Cuts

Robert Altman has made a bunch of movies that don’t follow conventional structures. Instead, the filmmaker presents us a gallery of characters who are not really related, and he lets them bump and mingle through the little things of life. This time, we’re in Los Angeles, as big helicopters are showering the city with bug spray to eliminate an epidemic of med flies. One of the pilots, played by Peter Gallagher, is caught in a messy divorce with his ex-wife (Frances McDormand), and he’s decided to get revenge in a rather immature way (you’ll see). Meanwhile, she’s sleeping with a cop, interpreted by Tim Robbins. He’s actually married with children, but he’s a lousy father and he’s constantly sleeping around. That doesn’t bother much his wife, who’s starting to just be amused (Madeleine Stowe) by her husband’s lame excuses. She even laughs about it with her sister (Julianne Moore), a painter who’s married to a surgeon (Matthew Modine). They’re a nice couple who have just invited a couple they don’t even know for dinner to be polite. So they’re expecting a visit from Claire the Clown (Anne Archer) and her husband, who will go on a fishing trip and bring back some fish for the meal, even though his buddies and him find a corpse in the lake.

Another pair of couples is hanging out at a jazz club. Chris Penn is a pool cleaner, and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) makes a living doing phone sex while cleaning the house and changing her kids’ diapers. The other couple is formed of make-up artist Robert Downey Junior and Lily Taylor, who’s fascinated by fishes and even buys some for her mom, played by Lily Tomlin. She herself is troubled, both by her constantly drunk but sweet boyfriend (Tom Waits) and because she hit a kid with her car. He’s the son of Andie McDowell and Bruce Davidson, who does editorial on TV. While in the hospital, he’s approached by his father (Jack Lemmon), whom he hasn’t seen in years, and the couple is also harassed by a baker (Lyle Lovett), who has reasons to be pissed at them but doesn’t realize how bad his timing is! Quite a cast of character, ey!

Personally, I found the film interesting and well put together, but I didn’t really get into it. Maybe it’s because I have yet to get stuck in a tiresome thirtysomething existence, between a dead-end job and an unexciting family life. Watching “Short Cuts”, I appreciated Robert Altman’s precise writing (based on Raymond Carver stories) and direction, and I enjoyed the all-star cast, but I just felt like an outside witness. Movies are supposed to grab you and make you forget you’re only watching a film. But watching this, I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t thrilled either. I believe this is supposed to be some sort of cynical comedy, but I didn’t find it funny. Actually, I found these characters and their small lives pretty sad. But don’t get me wrong! I still liked the picture, particularly the film noir feel of it, with the real cool jazz score and the constant smoking and drinking, and it’s impressive how Altman juggles all these little stories at the same time. And though the film lasts more than three hours, it always remains interesting, thanks to very good dialogue, great acting and a delicious scene in which Julianne Moore argues with her hubby while naked from the waist down. And if the movie’s take on human nature didn’t lift me up, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth thinking about. “Short Cuts” lacks the sharp satire and excitement of “The Player”, but it’s still a superior film.

The Sixth Sense

This is much more than a scary movie or a ghost story. It’s a riveting psychological thriller about death and its manifestations. To give you an idea, think of the Patrick Swayze vehicle “Ghost” through the hands of David Fincher.

Bruce Willis stars as Dr. Malcolm, a child psychiatrist whose brilliant career helping the younger ones has earned him a prestigious award from the city of Philadelphia, and he’s happily married to an antique shop owner (Olivia Williams). But one fateful night, his self-confidence is shattered when a former patient (New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg, unrecognizable) comes to see him, seriously deranged, and Malcolm understands he didn’t actually help him at all back when he was a kid. After that, he’s a different man, broken, and his wife and him grow distant. And then he meets Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who has similar problems. He’s overly quiet and weird, seems to live in constant terror and has unexplainable bruises and marks on his little body. Malcolm feels that if he can help Cole, he’ll somehow redeem himself.

Saying more would be unforgivable. This is the kind of movie with a bigger-than-life twist that makes you wanna see it again, as it puts everything into perspective. But unlike the nonetheless clever endings of films like “The Usual Suspects” or “The Game”, this one makes absolute sense and doesn’t feel like a trick. The entire picture is constructed around that final revelation, and if you’re attentive it’s obvious. Personally, I happened to suspect what was up in the very first scene, but it didn’t ruin my experience. Au contraire, my doubts had me compellingly watching how subtly and ingenuously the film is woven.

“The Sixth Sense” was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a 29 year old who shows uncanny maturity and skill. His third movie (he previously made the little seen “Wide Awake” and “Praying With Anger”) presents us with brilliant filmmaking to the service of a real knowledge of life. The characters are complex and interesting, the premise is intriguing and the film’s restrained pace makes it only more evocative and powerful. Shyamalan creates incredible atmosphere through the gloomy cinematography of Tak Fujimoto and James Newton Howard‘s slightly offbeat score.

And then there are the top-notch performances. Bruce Willis ruled in action flicks like “Die Hard” (arguably the coolest guy movie ever made), but also showed acting range in such daring films as “Pulp Fiction” and “Twelve Monkeys”. Here he shows calm and austerity, softly giving soul to his character. Toni Collette is excellent as well as Cole’s single mother, who’s deeply caring but not one of those annoyingly perky movie moms; she’s had it rough, and sometimes it comes off in her attitude with her son.

But there’s no question that the film really belongs to young Haley Joel Osment, who gives the most intense and memorable, Oscar-worthy performance I’ve seen so far this year. You never think of him as a cutesy child actor. He plays a tormented kid who’s terrified relentlessly by his gift/curse. He might be shaking or crying, but he’s still strong and brave if you understand how disturbing it must be to constantly see dead people walking around, unknowingly from the living population.

The relevance of its themes, the effectiveness of the direction and the moving performances contribute to make “The Sixth Sense” a fascinating film.

State and Main

Here’s a small, sweet little film that seems to spring from another era. When’s the last time you’ve seen a comedy that went on without rushing for gags, that just kept with its subdued satirical tone without going for cheap laughs? Even on David Mamet standards, this is an unusual film to come out of Hollywood. It sort of has the same feel as his political satire “Wag The Dog” except that this time he focuses on the movie business and it all seems… quieter. I don’t know how good a thing this is. In a way, it’s refreshing to watch a film like this, without any of the usual bells and whistles, only a great cast delivering Mamet’s signature dialogue. Then again, I’m not sure I even laughed once throughout, and this is supposed to be a comedy! I did have a good time, though, and I appreciated the cleverness of the writing… But still, could it be that Mamet is being too clever for his own good? Here’s a film that film critics will enjoy, but I seriously doubt it will find itself an audience.

The premise of the film has a Hollywood cast and crew making an impromptu change of location after an indiscretion by one of the stars and arriving in the picturesque small town of Waterford, Vermont. This is the kind of old-fashioned little country town which seems to spring out of a 1950s sitcom, with white picket fences, a Dalmatian running around the fire station and a doctor who makes house calls. Basically, the film is about the clash between the superficial, cynical Hollywood world and quiet small-town life. There is no real big plot, just little stories between the large cast of characters. Most of it revolves around the movie’s hard-ass producer (David Paymer) and the bullshitting director (William H. Macy) who must cope with a production that seems about to crash down every minute now. For once, the film is called “The Old Mill” and they don’t even have an old mill to shoot in! Then there’s Macy’s female lead (Sarah Jessica Parker, very enjoyable in bimbo mode) is suddenly reticent about her nude scenes even though it was in her contract, and his A-list star (Alec Baldwin) not only makes fussy demands about his diet and script changes, but also entertains an interest in underage girls. So when Julia Stiles‘ young, pretty character comes to his hotel room to deliver his food, well…

Meanwhile, on the fringes of this mayhem, the extraordinary Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the film’s soft-spoken screenwriter, an earnest former playwright not really ready for the corrupt Hollywood lifestyle. Mamet has him meeting a nice, intelligent bookseller (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s beautiful wife) who helps him with script changes, shows him around town… and steals his heart. Hack romantic comedy writers everywhere should take notes: rarely have I seen a developing love affair so enjoyable and realistic on screen. Maybe it’s Mamet’s sharp writing, or the way that, as a director, he gives the characters time to get to know -and appreciate- each other, or it might be the chemistry between Pidgeon and Hoffman (who keeps confirming his status as one of the best working actors with every movie)… Or maybe it’s all of that together. In any way, all of the scenes between the two of them are wonderful.

It’s also interesting how the themes of the film Hoffman is writing reflect on what happens. Its protagonists are reaching for purity, yet off screen Baldwin sleeps with a teenage fan (Stiles) and Parker is a dim-witted slut. There’s also talk of getting a second chance, and Hoffman somehow gets that himself. I don’t want to go into it in detail, but at some point Hoffman is caught in a dilemma between telling the truth and risking his career or compromising his convictions to save the film. That’s interesting too, and so is Mamet’s satirical portrayal of the ways of Hollywood people, even though, as I said, it’s never quite laugh-out-loud funny. Overall, “State and Main” is an odd case. It packs a lot of talent behind and in front of the camera, but somehow all of this doesn’t quite gel into a great film. A very good one, for sure, but not as good as you’d want it to be. For my money, last year’s Steve Martin-penned “Bowfinger”, which covered some of the same ground, was both wittier and way, way funnier. Still, if only for the understated romance between Hoffman and Pidgeon, “State and Main” is well worth seeing.

Three Kings

This is one of these movies that quickly gather good buzz. I myself was fairly intrigued by this apparently impossible to describe Gulf War flick and figured it could either be a masterpiece or a mess, but certainly not banal. Thankfully, we got ourselves yet another masterpiece in this last and possibly most prolific in great movies year of the ’90s. To my knowledge this is the first film to revolve around the Gulf War, even though it has ended 8 years ago. David O. Russell’s movie gives that conflict the same cynical treatment filmmakers like Cimino, Kubrick and Stone gave the Vietnam war. Because when you think of it, the war against Iraq didn’t make much more sense. Supposedly, George Bush (the old one, not his coke-snorting son) and his army bombed the hell out of the country because they had invaded Kuwait. Yet recent history taught us that the United States can be opportunistic, chauvinist capitalists, and there are reasons to believe they were really after Arabian oil for Uncle Sam’s big fat SUV.

Russell’s script finds a quirky way to unveil the “truth” about operation Desert Storm without falling into tedious military debates. It’s March 1991, and war just ended. Saddam Hussein surrendered and moved his troops out of Kuwait, the US signed a cease-fire treaty, everything’s peachy. Back on the deserted field, the soldiers are already celebrating, as reporters send images of victory back home. And so we meet Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), an office clerk who joined the army to make some dough for his newborn baby. Opportunity comes a-knocking when he finds a map sticking out of an Iraq prisoner’s ass (literally!). With the uneducated deep South slacker Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) and the religious Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), Troy figures that the map shows the way to the fortune in gold buyons Saddam stole from the sheiks. Under the leadership of disillusioned officer Archie Gates (George Clooney), they take off in a Humvee on their way to Iraq bunkers, ready to make a big score.

And then comes the twist, as our cocky, greedy American heroes fall ass backwards in the mess the war put the country into. Okay, Saddam left Kuwait, but why is this evil prick still ruling Iraq? It’s as if the US Army started something and left just when things got interesting. Iraq civilians are left in misery, their cities bombed, with their own army killing any threatening element. President Bush told them to rise up against Saddam, and now he’s not even sending his Army to back them up. The film is about how Archie and his “three kings” decide to do the right thing and try to help a group of rebels and civilians to escape this hell, even though they have orders not to get involved.

“Three Kings” is a movie in a league of its own. Before you can see similarities with another film, it takes you somewhere else unexpected. There’s some smart-ass humor, action scenes as exciting as any non-“Matrix” film you saw this year, politics… Russell (best known for indie gems like “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting with Disaster”) gives it all a stylish look, with a camera that barely ever stops moving to keep us right where the action is, and bleached, almost surreal photography and various visual tricks that keep the movie sparkling and unpredictable. It kind of has the maverick feel of the best parts of “Saving Private Ryan”, but it also has the good sense to drop the patriotism and send a strong anti-war message instead. There’s a particularly inspired shot that shows you how horrible it really is when a bullet hits you in the gut. But don’t think it’s all dread and suffering. Russell gives his film an even more offbeat feel by scoring it with pop songs by the Beach Boys, Chicago, U2 and even the ultra campy Plastic Bertrand!

Let’s also give its dues to the ensemble cast led by George Clooney, who is shaping himself into the new Mr. Cool. I really like how, on top of his TV charisma and rugged hunkiness, he’s also a great actor who can be alternately playful, badass and cynical. I also really liked Mark Wahlberg’s performance. He’s another one you could have been tempted to dismiss as “just a Calvin Klein model” before his glorious turn as “Boogie Nights”‘ Dirk Diggler. Here he confirms furthermore his acting abilities, especially in the scenes where he’s conversing with the Iraq soldier who’s torturing him and he realizes they’re not all that different. Rapper Ice Cube is good too and so is music video director Spike Jonze, who I think is acting on film for the first time (unless you count his dancing in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”). Overall, “Three Kings” is a rare blend of breath-taking action and thoughtful writing, and easily one of the best movies of 1999.

Twin Dragons

There are few performers as mindlessly enjoyable as Jackie Chan. He’s comical, he’s charismatic and man, is he an awesome action star! But as fast and tough as his chops are, he still has a tendency to star in movies with tired, stupid and unbelievable plots, and this has got to be his sillier film. Jackie Chan plays two roles, as both of a set of twin brothers separated at birth. One grew up to become a rude, macho mechanic who’s also a martial arts expert, while the other became a sophisticated, world-renowned concert conductor. Ah, this is so burlesque, and not even original! The film plays heavily with mistaken identity gags, as the two Jackies are mistaken for the other. Like, the mechanic has to conduct a concert, or the musician is attacked by thugs. There’s also a very long and stretched sequence in which the lady friend of each of the Jackies thinks he’s the other one. All of this is kinda amusing at first, but there is way too fucking much of that type of easy soft comedy and it gets tiresome and frustrating. Hey, Jackie, stop fooling around and fight, dammit!

The film was directed by Hong Kong filmmakers Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, who are technically efficient and direct some fun action scenes. There’s plenty of fast and furious kung-fu, wild shoot-outs and even a speedboat chase, but we’ve seen better Jackie Chan fights. I did like the finale, which takes place in a vehicle crash test area, but for the most part, the action is not that exceptional and it is often buried under lame bits of humor. The film lacks the graceful violence of the best of Hong Kong cinema, except during the great black & white opening, the film’s coolest scene. “Twin Dragons” isn’t a very good film, but like even the worst of Jackie Chan’s films, it is still fairly entertaining, if not very memorable.

Wayne’s World

I’m a huge fan of Mike Myers. I really get his humor, and since he writes most of his material, I like his movies a whole lot. I mean, there are many movies that will make you laugh often and you’ll be like, hey, I had a good time. But movies like “Wayne’s World” make me laugh so much than I lose all objectivity. It’s based on Myers’ “Wayne’s World” skits on Saturday Night Live, but he had the good sense of not just stretching the formula but turning it into a real movie. Wayne Campbell (Myers) and his best friend Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) are developed into more than just caricatures, and we see them interacting with the world outside the basement of Wayne’s parents, where they host their own local access show, in which they basically just goof around. So we learn that there’s life beyond the show. Wayne and Garth love to hang at the Stan Mikita coffee shop, party on at rock concerts or just drive around Aurora in the GarthMobile. It’s not a very ambitious life, but they’re having a good time.

Things get more complicated when Wayne meets Cassandra (Tia Carrere), the babelicious singer of a kick ass hard rock band and when, not long after, yuppie TV producer Benjamin (Rob Lowe) buy their show to put it on a network. But these originally good news bring them a whole new set of problems, as Benjamin tries to screw them over, force them to sell out and to woo Cassandra. And through all this, Garth and Wayne might even lose their beautiful friendship! Dude! Okay, I summarized the plot pretty straightforward, but it’s much goofier in the movie. Myers’ screenplay is filled with ridiculous situations, amusing details, throwaway references, inside jokes and original, hilarious dialogue. Penelope Spheeris might not be Scorsese, but she’s a good enough director who keeps the film fast and well crafted. The film also has an awesome soundtrack (featuring Queen, Alice Cooper, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others) and most importantly, it’s constantly laugh out loud funny.

That’s due not only to the witty writing but also to the great performances. Mike Myers has perfect comic timing, and he creates in Wayne a very colorful character who’s always absolutely hilarious. I love his look, the way he talks, the way he moves, and how he comments the action directly to the camera. He achieved to create an even cooler character in Austin Powers, but Wayne is still a lot of fun. Dana Carvey is also very amusing as oddball Garth, who’s geeky yet mysterious, even potentially threatening. Rob Lowe is good at making Benjamin into a totally loathable butt kisser, and Tia Carrere is both sexy and a fine actress. “Wayne’s World” is one of my favorite comedies ever. It’s one of those films that I don’t get tired of watching. I must have seen it a dozen times and I still find every single joke hilarious. You start watching it and before you know it, you just spent 95 minutes laughing. Because this movie is stupid, but in a smart way: it’s supposed to be stupid! Party on!

Wonder Boys

Wonderful! Magnificent! Aaah! Here’s one of the best written, directed and acted films I’ve seen in, well, a while. Then why dead-end February release date? This should have been released in time for Oscar consideration. Somehow like “American Beauty” (which should sweep the next Academy Awards), “Wonder Boys” is an American classic in the true sense, a human comedy filled with subtlety and insight about a middle-aged man who reevaluates the way he lives his life. Plus, and this is rather rare for me (“American Beauty” didn’t even do that), I felt so involved with the characters and was so gripped by the story that I forgot I was watching a movie.

At its core, “Wonder Boys” is about writing. A movie about writing? Well, it’s based on a book, and then as visual as they can be, films have to be written too, right? And this Steve Kloves adaptation of a 1995 Michael Chabon novel is simply a marvel of storytelling. First it’s a very layered look at a time and a place, namely a Pittsburgh university campus in the late ’90s. It’s wintertime, and everything is cold, and gray. This is an “old” world, where buildings are ancient and aging men and women preside over eager young minds. And then the film introduces its compelling, fully-developed characters, embodied by a very strong cast. Michael Douglas stars, and he’s so good that he makes you forget about his usual movie persona, the despicable, oversexed millionaire. I didn’t watch Douglas in this film, I was following Grady Tripp, a fiftysomething author whose first novel was an award-winning, successful masterpiece 7 years ago, yet he hasn’t published anything since. He doesn’t have writer’s block, au contraire: he’s more than 2000 single-spaced pages into his follow-up, and the end still seems far off. Meanwhile, he’s been conducting writing workshops at the university and watching marriage after marriage crumble…

The film takes place during the college’s annual Word Fest, which will turn out to be a decisive week-end in Tripp’s life. His third wife (unseen on-screen) leaves him, his mistress (Frances McDormand) tells him she’s pregnant with his baby, which is tricky since she’s the chancellor of the university and she’s married to the head of the English department (Richard Thomas), his boss! As if it wasn’t enough, his party loving gay editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to pressure him about his novel, and the bright, sassy student (Katie Holmes) who rents a room in his house is trying to seduce him. And then there’s James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a confused but brilliant young writer who looks up to Tripp, as if he was any kind of role model! Maybe he is, after all, as he was once a ‘wonder boy’ himself… Mentor and protégé are in for one hell of a ride involving a dead dog, lots of pot smoking, the theft of the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore when she wed Joe Dimaggio, an unsafe mix of bourbon and codeine, a drag queen…

There are so much weird twists and turns in this film that is could play as all-out comedy, but director Curtis Hanson wisely chooses not to rush for the laughs and take the time to stop for all these quiet little moments of truth. Yes, the film is often hilarious and surprisingly exciting, but it’s really an expertly crafted, intelligent character piece, a mature film about inspiration and choices. Hanson hasn’t lost any of the skill and confidence he showed in his “L.A. Confidential”. “Wonder Boys” should easily make my 2000 top ten.