Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

peter-bart-mike-fleming-badge-verticalBART: Anyone out there notice the reverse sexism that’s afflicting Hollywood? I’m glad women are getting most of the juicy roles these days, but I’m surprised that the guys have all but shriveled and disappeared. And the phenomenon is being well documented. Michael Douglas last week argued that Hollywood’s leading men have lost their masculinity. A story in The Times of London claimed that the few flashy male roles in film were mostly going to Brits and Aussies — witness Tom Holland as Spider-Man. The leading men in Magic Mike XXL and Terminator: Genisys looked like they were sleepwalking (or sleep dancing). George Clooney in Tomorrowland was formidably forgettable. And Bradley Cooper did his best to build a character in Aloha, but the script did him in. The women are even dominating animated movies – can you remember any guys in Inside Out?

michael douglasFLEMING: It was quite a week for cranky older movie stars, with Dustin Hoffman lamenting that today’s movies are terrible and that all of the quality is on TV. I think both he and Douglas have valid points. Features rallied at Comic-Con, but TV takes a bigger part of the stage each year. I wonder if Michael Douglas and Dustin Hoffman would even get recognized by the stampede of costumed festgoers who actually line up at a “weapons check” booth to have their hardware inspected and tagged so they can lug it around to events and the flea market that happens on the convention floor. You’ve got to see it to believe it. I watched one lavishly costumed and sword-wielding guy pose for pictures with the crowd, and when one asked what he thought of the Con, he confided he didn’t have a ticket and was content to preen around the perimeter. Unlike the smelly costumed Elmos and Spider-Men all over Times Square who pose with kids and then get hostile and shake down tourists for tips, these heroes seem to want nothing more than attention. Peter, I have the feeling you wouldn’t be caught dead mixing with this Hoi Polloi, but you’ve got to see this to believe it. But back to your rant about the lack of macho male movie stars…

all the president's menBART: It wasn’t that long ago that the studios demanded a top male star to greenlight a movie – remember the era of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and the young Redford? Today the guys can’t even get hired. Paul Rudd was thrilled to be cast as an ant. The next major insect picture will probably star a ladybug.

o-STEVE-MCQUEEN-facebookFLEMING: This is just a phase we are going through. The latest real man on the scene is Tom Hardy, and the ones before that were 007 Daniel Craig and Russell Crowe. But in a PC age, those guys — or guys like Sean Connery, Richard Burton, or even the late Omar Shariff who were ladies men and drank, gambled and caroused — they trip over themselves when they insist on being themselves off-camera. I’ll be interested to see if women can carry these superhero films like Wonder Woman. The track record of women not named Angelina Jolie in action films is spotty at best.

bud whiteBART: Even Woody Allen, who always tells us he loves actors, couldn’t find enough for Joaquin Phoenix to do in Irrational Man, his new movie out next week. Phoenix plays a boozy, boring and bored academic. We’ve seen more interesting academics in The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything, but Phoenix gets to drop names like Kierkegaard and Heidegger (Woody favorites) and also to make out with Emma Stone. james bond“Why should the audience get involved with the dusty denizens of academia,” asks The Guardian. Because Woody wants us to. The trouble is his movies more and more turn into mind games – intellectual conceits devoid of the glints of humor so appealing in early Woody movies. Woody doesn’t want to be funny anymore, and he’s taking it out on his actors.

Irrational ManFLEMING: I saw Irrational Man at its Cannes premiere and liked its twists and turns, and how Phoenix’s character rediscovers his mojo through murder. Next topic. I came all the way to San Diego for the Comic-Con deal, so you’ve got to give me a moment to get some column inches out of it. The panels are so hyped and choreographed, they are like theme park attractions. But there were two things that happened here that reminded me of the power of filmmaker ambition and risk. We broke news that Ben Affleck would take over the Batman franchise as director, star, and that he was co-writing with DC Comics guy Geoff Johns. Warner Bros wasn’t happy because they felt it might upstage their carefully staged panel on Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. I look at it differently. I admired how, years back, Affleck (who by the way is no metrosexual at 6’4” and, unlike the actors playing a few superheroes, could probably kick both our asses) scripted his own second act in Hollywood as director and co-writer of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, leading to the Best Picture winner Argo. Now he is risking all that by placing his chips on the table to bet on himself and take the Batman baton from Christopher Nolan. How can you not love that?

BenAffleck__130711161715-200x225__130711201532I got to observe this kind of ambition here when Luc Besson gathered a handful of reporters in the back room of a bar to show us the storyboards for Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets. It is his $180 million sci-fi dream project, based on his favorite French comic book. That number is the same as what Disney spent on Tomorrowland, but for an indie European company to spend that much through equity and presales, it’s a giant risk, and failure would rattle his EuropaCorp to its core. The visuals conveyed a futuristic world with these amazing creatures and vistas that looked like Star Wars meets Blade Runner meets Besson’s The Fifth Element. There are only five major human characters and dozens of crazy-looking creatures, and we hear he’s already clearing space in his Paris studio because he’s going to need all the soundstages for the July 2017 release. What struck me about his presentation was the vulnerability and the quiet courage of an artist betting all on his vision. Besson has hatched many hit films, but I imagine you would have seen the same look in the eyes of Peter Jackson when he pitched The Lord Of The Rings, or when James Cameron went 100% over budget on Titanic and gave back his backend deal. Besson didn’t reveal the film’s plot, only the world he is building, but there was no glossy Comic-Con choreography in his audacious hunger and audacity to put it all on the line and create something bold and new.

luc bessonBART: I always admire filmmakers, all artists, who stick their necks out. But doesn’t it bother you that the risk-taking is confined to comic books? I know you’re at Comic-Con, but still – give it a little perspective. We have Affleck and Batman. We have Besson and Valerian, a French comic book. Besson is betting the farm, but consider the spectacular haul he made from Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. I’m not worried about him. Lucy was actually a brilliant conceit. I hope he matches it.

valerianFLEMING: But this is significant because these filmmakers are building worlds and either the audience will buy in (Lord of Of The Rings and Avatar) or they won’t (Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland). When Besson greeted us, wearing this snug T-shirt from the Valerian comic that was given to him by the comic’s artist Jean-Claude Mezieres, he recalled the excitement he felt as a child, racing to the store each Wednesday to buy the next installment of the serial. He talked about how he had this film scripted several years ago, only to throw it in the trash when he saw James Cameron’s Avatar, which showed Besson his project played it too safe. “It just was not good enough,” Besson said. “Jim comes along every five years or so and does something like this, and either it kills you or it makes you better. He just pushed open these doors and possibilities.”

valerian comicBesson now has a script and visuals he’s confident in, and two young actors for the lead time travelers he loves, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavingne, and so off he goes. He said that filmmakers like Cameron — and I imagine he’d include Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Nolan and George Lucas, if prodded — make movies that stopped him in his tracks, and now his goal is for those guys to see his movie and feel the same way. Besson seemed bemused when asked why he would risk so much at this stage of his career. “If I wanted a life without risk, I would work for the Post Office,” he said.