Movie Review ~ Zoolander 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Bieber, Kyle Mooney

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I guess I just need to start this review by owning up to the hard truth that before doing my homework for Zoolander 2 by re-watching the original, I’d only seen Zoolander once, back on the day it opened three weeks after September 11 in 2001.  Arriving at time when audiences needed a brainless piece of fluff to distract them for a minor amount of time, the comedy was 89 minutes of funny, if perplexing, moments.  For each solid laugh there were a dozen groans and while it did a fair job skewering the easy target of male models and fashionistas, it never left a lasting impression on me.  In the years since it’s evolved into a bit of a cult hit (it did better business on video than it did in theaters), but I never felt the need to revisit it until the sequel came creaking along.

Now, no one is going to accuse director/writer/star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) of missing the boat on cashing in on a sequel to a popular title from his canon.  With Meet the Parents, Madagascar, and Night of the Museum now trilogies, Stiller likely was running through his IMDb page and landed on Zoolander as the target of his next trip to the Stiller well (we should be thankful he didn’t set his sights on Starsky & Hutch or Dodgeball…oh wait, a sequel to Dodgeball is already in development).

A whopping 15 years after the original was released, Zoolander 2 is ready to strut its stuff on a catwalk near you and while overall it’s better made than its predecessor, it suffers from the same chronic forgetability.  Though Stiller and co-star Owen Wilson (Inherent Vice) look remarkably, um, “refreshed”, the jokes and comic foibles of the two dunderhead models start to feel musty halfway through the smorgasbord of cameo appearances and off-the-wall tangents.

A freak accident a decade ago sent former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into exile in Northern New Jersey and split his family apart.  When he’s called out of retirement by Billy Zane bearing an invitation to model in Italy, Derek agrees as a way to show he can be a fit parent and provide for his son.  Meanwhile, Hansel (Wilson) has been hiding out in Malibu, ashamed of a disfigurement that ended his career.  He’s also visited by Zane with the same offer of redemption and in an attempt to find out who he really is, agrees to put his shallow pride to the side and take to the runway.  Soon after their arrival, Derek and Hansel are in the middle of a conspiracy within the fashion world involving a legend that’s part The Da Vinci Code and part acid trip which threatens to end their careers (and lives) for good.

Upping the ante from the original film, the cameos that Stiller has secured are plentiful.  Running the gamut from Susan Boyle to Anna Wintour, Stiller isn’t messing around when it comes to stacking the deck with famous faces even though it’s clear many of them filmed in front of a blue screen and were digitally input into the scenes.  Without question, the majority of the fun derived from revisiting Stiller’s brainless model is picking out the stars that pass through the frame.  And the film earned a full two stars from me in its opening moments when it blessedly offs an annoying pop star that definitely had it coming.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments, because it does have some sequences that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all.  To their credit, Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg insert joke upon joke upon joke so if four are duds there’s sure to be one solid laugh coming right on their heels.  The film gets its best results with Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home) reprising his role as a megalomaniac designer and Kristen Wiig (The Martian) made up to the high heavens as a European fashion maven modeled after Donatella Verasce.  When Ferrell and Wiig are involved, you just have to let the camera roll and they’ll do the work for you.  The biggest surprise of the film is how high Penelope Cruz flies.  The Oscar winner hasn’t been this free for years and she seems to relish the opportunity to play with broad strokes.

Yet overall the film feels as hollow as the fashion world itself.  It’s all fun on the surface and in the moment but it leaves no lasting impression on the viewer.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an overall positive reaction during the screening, I laughed at the most absurd passages (be prepared to let Fred Armisen haunt your dreams as a…well…I shan’t spoil the remarkable vision for you) and enjoyed myself sporadically, but upon reflection it’s simply a well packaged bag of potato chips…more stale air than actual food.

The Silver Bullet ~ Zoolander 2

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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Thoughts: In a case of striking while the iron is ice cold, Ben Stiller is resurrecting his dunderhead model character from the 2001 sleeper hit. Released two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the original film represented the first chance for audiences to laugh again with the skewering satire of the model industry that doesn’t exactly (in my mind at least) hold up on repeat viewings. Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) isn’t wanting for directing/acting opportunities or franchise endeavors so I’m curious to see why 2016 was the right time to bring back Derek Zoolander. This teaser is a little on the obnoxious side but with Tropic Thunder screenwriter Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) providing the script, maybe there’s hope for something worth the 15 year wait.

Movie Review ~ Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Larry spans the globe, uniting favorite and new characters while embarking on an epic quest to save the magic before it is gone forever.

Stars: Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Steve Coogan, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rebel Wilson, Dan Stevens

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I believe the statute of limitations has run out by now so I can say to you now that I snuck into the first Night at the Museum on Christmas Day 2006.  My family had caught the first showing of Dreamgirls and I stuck around to see another flick while my parents started making the rounds to all of our relatives.  That first film was a pleasant, if silly, fantasy that provided good opportunities for its cast to do their thing while interacting with the kind of special effects that aren’t summer blockbuster “wow” worthy but succeeded on their own merits.

The sequel, released as summer entertainment in 2009 was the very definition of a movie studio and cast cashing in and making a quick buck.  The jokes were stale, the actors checked out, the direction given over to the special effects teams, and a higher emphasis on potty humor and gross gags made it nearly an intolerable watch.

I didn’t even know a second sequel was in the works until I caught the teaser trailer for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in early 2014 and by the looks of it I gleaned we were in for more of the same tired quips and even more screen time for the wily capuchin that delights in urinating on anything that gets in its way.   Seeing a Christmas release date it wasn’t hard to put the equation together that another “just for the paycheck” experience awaited all those willing to plunk down their greenbacks at the box office.

The third (supposedly final) entry in the series winds up being better than its predecessor but still falls short of the wonder the original brought forth.  Yes, it’s a near retread of the other films with scenes filled with characters seemingly chosen via random lottery (or whoever was willing to work the cheapest) and star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) couldn’t be less invested if he tried but a compact plot keeps the action moving and largely contained to a single night of adventure.

Making it past the awful first 20 minutes is key here.  As is the case with sequels, a heavily populated opening is an easy way to give audiences a view of their favorite returning characters before finding a way to justify their absence in the latter half of the film.  Here we have night security guard Larry (Stiller) traveling to London with, among others, Teddy Roosevelt (the late Robin Williams, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), a Neanderthal doppelgänger of Larry (also played by Stiller), Jedidiah (Owen Wilson, The Internship) and Octavius (Steve Coogan, Philomena) to discover why the magical Tablet of Ahkmenrah is corroding and causing mayhem.

It’s at London’s British Museum that Larry and company encounter a bumbling security guard (Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect, proving once again that a little of her goes a long way), Lancelot (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), Ahkmenrah’s Pharoah Papa (Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3), and a nasty serpent in their quest to save the tablet from destruction.

The film holds a few surprises, the best being a funny and finely timed cameo by an eternally game superstar known for his singing chops as well as his action hero status.  It’s nice to see the likes of Bill Cobbs (The Bodyguard), Mickey Rooney (who also passed away in 2014), and especially Dick Van Dyke as the old security guards from the first film.  The first time we see Van Dyke probably gave me one of the best laughs of 2014…in much the same way his appearance in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day did in October.  Though the main baddie is somewhat bland, there’s ample opportunity for moments of creativity that are too often stymied by pee jokes and the stubborn need to flesh out a coming of age story for Stiller’s son.  All are distractions (along with Stiller’s oddly changing haircut) from what could have been a nice holiday adventure.

For a moment, the film seems to be heading off into the sunset in fine form…until a total unnecessary epilogue ruins it all.  Director Shawn Levy (This Is Where I Leave You) either was under pressure from the studio to leave the franchise door slightly ajar or just couldn’t resist one more chance to let his special effects team run amok…either way it turned a warm send-off into a chilly finale that was most disappointing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

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Synopsis: Larry leaves New York City for London on a quest to save the magic before it is gone forever.

Release Date: December 19, 2014

Thoughts: I usually keep decent tabs on movies but I must have been asleep when a second sequel to 2006’s Night at the Museum was announced…that or else the film was greenlit when no one was looking. While the original reminded me of the type of fun Disney may have rolled out in the early 70s, the sequel was a cash-grab from all involved…adding nothing but loud noises and special effects. Can’t say the third film looks to be anything different with star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) returning alongside director Shawn Levy (This Is Where I Leave You) and the rest of the crazy characters that come to life when the museum is closed. Looking at the positive, one can be hopeful that the film inspires the youngins to take a more active interest in history and their local museums.

Movie Review ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A day-dreamer escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie you should see in the theaters on the biggest screen possible.  There…I wanted to get that out of the way first and foremost because I know there are some people that want to know if a movie is something they should make the effort to see in theaters or if it’s one they should wait on until it’s available for home consumption.  And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is surely one that will be enjoyed in a movie theater where the picture is clear and the sound is booming.

That’s because director Ben Stiller, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (I Don’t Know How She Does It), and composer Theodore Shapiro (Hope Springs) have collaborated well to deliver a movie that looks, sounds, and more importantly FEELS good…and one that some posited would never be made.

Loosely adapted by Steve Conrad from the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t align much with the 1947 Danny Kaye film of the same name, jettisoning the earlier films central plot and replacing it with Stiller’s nebbish take on Mitty as a Life magazine photo editor journeying all over the world to track down a single frame of film that is to be used on the cover of the last edition of Life magazine.  Adding some wrinkles to this journey is Walter’s tendency to have grand flights of fancy where he says the right thing, wins the girl (Kristen Wiig, Girl Most Likely), and battles back the juvenile antics of his haranguing boss (Adam Scott, Friends with Kids).  These daydream-y moments pepper the first half of the film but gradually begin to be supplanted by Walter’s real life adventures, which far surpass anything he could have imagined – giving the whole film a dream-like element that had me wondering more than once if it was all happening in his mind (I won’t give you an answer to that question…you’ll have to decide for yourself).

The film has been pretty unfairly criticized for looking TOO good, more like a well produced Super Bowl commercial than an actual film and I can’t say I agree with that at all.  Yes, the cinematography is brilliantly uncluttered, deftly showcasing some beautiful foreign vistas in Greenland/Iceland and various mountain ranges but I believe Stiller and Dryburgh made it that way because we’re seeing the film through the eyes of a man who could never have imagined the sights he’s seeing.  Despite some egregious (even for a Hollywood studio standard) product placement, the film is a delight visually.

There’s also some poignant moments in Conrad’s script, whether it be Walter’s interaction with his matter of fact mother (a sweetly salty Shirley MacLaine) and Peter Pan-y sister (Kathryn Hahn, We’re The Millers) or his conversations with a rugged adventure photographer (Sean Penn) that may hold the key to his journey of discovery.  Wiig and Stiller’s romance is ever so slightly treacley (of course she’s a divorced single mom and of course there’s a scene where Stiller thinks she’s getting back together with her husband) but Wiig and Stiller are gifted enough to inject these moments with the right kind of gravitas that supersede any failings the script has to offer.

The movie is also genuinely funny, with Stiller’s interaction with a drunk helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) being the only moment I laughed until I cried in recent memory.  The PG rated film is absolutely family friendly but I’d encourage parents to not be deceived that very small children will like this as much as, say, a 10 year old would.  This is not a Night at the Museum style of family film…but one that parents can take kids to and have a nice discussion about family and future.

Like The Way Way Back, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a warm empathy emanating from its core that makes it a very worthy choice for the holiday season.  The film stopped and started for years while the right director and star were located and it’s nice to see that Stiller fit the bill for both roles.  There’s a lot of solid work on display here and I found Walter Mitty’s adventures to be right on par and possessing more meaning than anything that Iron Man could muster up.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

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Synopsis: An office worker who lives inside fantasy worlds where he gets to live an adventurous life while romancing his co-worker sets off a global journey to fix things when both of their jobs are threatened

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: An entire movie could be made just about the decades long struggle it has been to get this remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film off the ground.  In 1994 the film was rumored to star Jim Carrey and over the years names like Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Mike Myers floated by as would-be Walters…not to mention names like Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), Ron Howard (Splash!), and Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) being singled out as potential directors.  After all was said and done it was just one name that finally took on both acting and directing duties: Ben Stiller.  Now, it’s easy to forget that Stiller started out doing much more darker comedic material than the family fluff he’s been involved with lately and after watching the trailer I’m inclined to think that the wait was worth it.  Stiller could bring just the right amount of balance to this reworked update and here’s hoping he makes good use out of the other actors cast.  A holiday film that hopes to be a hit, I can see this one doing well if everything falls into place like I think it could.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.