ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 

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NASTY BABY (2015)

October 29, 2015

nasty baby Greetings again from the darkness. Many indie films receive positive responses during a film festival run because most festival goers are frequent movie watchers, and really appreciate the unique and brave approach taken by the rebellious and up-and-coming filmmakers. Writer/director Sebastian Silva lulls us into the comfort zone of a “friends” story and then stuns us with a third act that could seem out-of-the-blue, if one weren’t paying close attention along the way.

Mr. Silva also stars as Freddy, a media artist who is working on a video project (entitled Nasty Baby) that features himself (and others) imitating infants. He lives in Brooklyn with his boyfriend Mo, played by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe (so good in Rachel Getting Married, 2008). They are part of a trio of friends completed by Polly (Kristen Wiig), who is addressing her biological clock by relentlessly pursuing artificial insemination from her two friends.

While it’s easy as a viewer to get complacent watching the interactions of these three mostly likable people in various elements: together, separately, at work, with other acquaintances, and especially with neighbors; the script offers many subtle hints along the way about the make-up of each.

The supporting cast is excellent and includes Reg E Cathey (“House of Cards”) as a mentally-shaky neighbor, Mark Margolis (“Breaking Bad”) as a more level-headed neighbor, Alia Shawkat (underutilized here, but very talented) as Freddy’s assistant, and Neal Huff as the eccentric gallery owner.

Normal seems like a pretty straightforward term, but the film shows that normal really doesn’t exist, since it’s always changing. The relationship of this trio of friends, their plan for child-rearing, and the family dinner at Mo’s parent’s home … all examples of how normal has shifted. And to top it off, the film’s third act can’t be considered normal by any standard of story-telling, and you will question how you missed the true character of the main players … and maybe even how you would react, if you found yourself in this spot. If nothing else, the film might make you a bit more tolerant of your annoying neighbor that has caused you so many negative thoughts over the years.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

martian2

 

 


THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015)

August 21, 2015

Diary of Teenage Girl Greetings again from the darkness. It takes some talent – acting, writing, directing – to make a watchable movie that centers on a teenage girl sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend.  Ordinarily that would be considered a (nausea-inducing) spoiler; however, it is disclosed in the trailer and is the focus of the best-selling YA novel from Phoebe Gloeckner. The author claims the story is “semi-autobiographical”, but we are all better off not knowing which parts she actually experienced.

The film begins in 1976 San Francisco with 15 year old Minnie (Bel Powley) celebrating her recent sexual escapades. As we hang with Minnie, we see and hear her dictating her diary entries into a microphone and clunky cassette deck. The thing that immediately jumps out as a difference in this film is the authenticity in its portrayal of teenage girls and the thoughts and perspectives of Minnie.  She lets us in on her desire to be desired and her conscious decision to give up her virginity to Monroe. Ahh yes, Monroe. The biggest issue here (and it’s a major issue – not just legally, but morally) is that Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is the boyfriend of Minnie’s mom (Kristen Wiig).

There are many complex aspects to the story, and you must get past the repeated illegal (no matter how consensual) sexual activity (it’s only a movie) to appreciate the rare insight from a teenage female perspective. Minnie is an artist being raised by what can conservatively be termed a lackluster parent. Her mom Charlotte spends much of her time drinking and drugging, setting a less-than-stellar example for her two daughters. It’s no wonder Minnie works so hard at being noticed and desired … feelings she mistakes for love. Witnessing the teenage brain attempt to transition to adulthood is excruciatingly painful, and a reminder that emotional maturity is a process and not an on/off switch.

Bel Powley is a new screen presence to most of us, and she is shockingly strong in carrying much of the movie. Alexander Skarsgard never once backs off from his thankless role – knowing full well his actions will disgust many viewers. Kristen Wiig brings nuance to her role as crappy parent, while Christopher Meloni, Margarita Levieva and Abby Wait are all strong in support.

Any film that kicks off with Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic” and later shows a clip of “H.R. Puffenstuff” deserves a shot, and first time director Marielle Heller rarely makes a safe choice in the presentation of Minnie’s journey. It’s a rare film that forgoes “teenage cuteness” for emotional growth. The film states that alienation is good for your art, and Ms. Heller and Mr. Gloeckner risk audience alienation for their courageous storytelling.  It’s no wonder the film has been a favorite on the film festival circuit.

watch the trailer:

 


WELCOME TO ME (2015)

May 8, 2015

welcome to me Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of films that feature some type of mental illness or disorder. Folks that don’t “fit in” make for characters that create unusual situations and generate cinema’s biggest friend – conflict.  Cast a talented performer who thrives in “off-center” roles, and the potential exists for some actual insight.

Kristen Wiig is obviously attracted to unusual characters, as well as stories that wobble between comedy and drama. Here she plays Alice Klieg, a woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Alice memorizes Oprah shows, spends hours watching infomercials, and attends state-mandated therapy with her psychologist (Tim Robbins). She also has many inappropriate social tendencies and is a consistent player in the California Lottery – a ritual that pays off nicely when she wins $86 million.

Once she collects her winnings, Alice decides to drop her meds cold and move herself into the spotlight. She relocates from her dank apartment into a suite at a local Indian Reservation Casino, and then buys airtime from a local infomercial studio run by brothers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden) in order to star in her own show, “Welcome to Me”.  With the help of a swan sled as a prop, Alice moves forward with a two hour TV block that is centered on her own thoughts and re-enactments of the most traumatic moments of her life. It’s about her personal pain, but also painful for the show’s producer played by Joan Cusack.

It’s difficult to tell what screenwriter Eliot Laurence and director Shira Piven (brother to actor Jeremy, and wife to director Adam McKay) are trying to accomplish here. Poking fun at mental illness is a delicate undertaking, but perhaps they meant this as more commentary on a society that is so quick to latch onto the troubles of others … whether as news or comedy. It could also be a statement on the narcissism that runs rampant these days, as Facebook is filled with selfies and photos of meals.

It could be argued that Alice’s TV show could be more accurately titled “TMI”, but it’s unfortunate there just doesn’t seem to be more substance here. Sure, there are some highly awkward and uncomfortable moments – some quite funny, but the movie really plays more like an extended comedy sketch, and whatever works seems due to the stellar cast: Wiig, Marsden, Bentley, Cusack, Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, and the underutilized Linda Cardellini. Just like “Perfect Polly” in the opening infomercial, what’s real and what’s real enough are in the eyes of the beholder, and perhaps this one could have used one more prepared statement.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

September 23, 2014

skeleton twins Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson … prepare yourself for 90 minutes of side-splitting laughter! OK, well you can prepare all you want, but you should know that while there are some funny moments, this is one of the bleakest films of the year. Bleak as in achingly painful to watch at times due to the emotional misery most every character experiences.

Hopefully no one stopped reading after “side-splitting laughter” because here is a sampling of thematic elements covered in the film: attempted suicide, suicide of a parent, adultery, sexual abuse of a minor, rampant lying, depression, horrific parenting, drug use, animal cruelty (goldfish).

If Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of SNL fame don’t spring to mind when considering those elements, please keep an open mind. Both are extremely good (and believable) in their roles as twins estranged for a decade, forced back together after a near tragedy. See, after a miserable childhood, their time apart has prevented both from establishing a strong personal relationship with anyone else. Hader plays a self-professed “gay cliché”, while Wiig is pretending to have the perfect suburban life with her gung-ho, always “up”, good guy husband (Luke Wilson).

The film’s best humor is produced in small moments thanks to the connection between Wiig and Hader. It’s definitely not in the almost shameful attempts at crowd-pleasing offered in the SNL-ish scenes of lip-synching to Starship, and over-indulging on Nitrous Oxide at the dental office.

Real emotional turmoil exists in the scenes between Hader and Ty Burrell, and the unnecessary and inexplicable reunion between Hader, Wiig and their mother (Joanna Gleason). Burrell, known for his outstanding “Modern Family” role, is intriguing as a dramatic actor. Looking forward to more of this from him.

The script, co-written by director Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, really does capture some poignant and dramatic moments, and certainly benefits from the extremely talented cast. Just don’t expect that side-splitting laughter … unless you are susceptible to lip-synching and/or nitrous oxide farting humor.

watch the trailer (but don’t believe the 50% comedy ratio):

 


ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (2013)

December 29, 2013

anchorman Greetings again from the darkness. Will Ferrell has been everywhere the past few weeks making promotional appearances as the golden voiced, perfectly coiffed Ron Burgandy. He clearly enjoys this character and is proud (deservedly so) of the franchise he created with business partner and director and co-writer Adam McKay. The first Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy was released in 2004 and nine years is an unusually long period to wait for a comedy sequel. But it’s not like either Ferrell or McKay need the money, and the golden rule of comedy … timing is everything.

The original movie has reached both classic comedy and cult status, and is one of the most frequently quoted movies from the past decade (“I’m kind of a big thing“). Having such a loyal following means guaranteed box office success for this sequel. So while I found this one somewhat lacking, the true Anchorman fans will embrace it … as proved by the loud laughter throughout the theatre.  And in a movie year strong on drama and somewhat lacking in comedies, it’s nice to hear laughter again.

The gag to get the doofus gang back together centers around the 1980 development of fictional Global News Network – the birth of 24 hour news (and a lightly veiled reference to CNN). The Ron Burgandy gang is all back: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, David Koechner as Champ, and Steve Carell as Brick. Christina Applegate also returns as Veronica Cartright, though sadly she has very few scenes. Newcomers include James Marsden as Ron Burgandy’s professional competition and Meagan Good as the station manager. Kristen Wiig weirds out as the soulmate for Brick, and the bus load of cameos arrives for the gang fight at the end … kind of a spoof of the 1979 cult favorite The Warriors.

I will never criticize a movie that makes so many people laugh. However, I will admit to finding only a few giggles in the two hours (including the Dan Issel reference). It did strike me that many of the best jokes and gags would be difficult for anyone under age 35 to “get”. Period humor abounds. The best jab at the news industry occurs when Ron Burgandy says “Why do we need to tell people what they NEED to know? Why can’t we tell them what they WANT to know?”. That kind of approach would have fit the cerebral humor I could appreciate.

**NOTE: if you are somehow unfamiliar with Anchorman humor, know that nothing is off limits.  There is plenty of humor based on racism, sexism, disabilities and most any other politically incorrect topic you can name.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the first movie and/or Will Ferrell OR you want to see the most star-studded gang fight in movie history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are confused by the laughter of others brought on by such movies as Step Brothers, Semi-Pro, or Blades of Glory

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VdGI5-z_hg