Movie Review: “Zoolander 2″

Starring
Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig
Director
Ben Stiller

Comedy sequels are tough. One of the few good recent examples, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” managed to keep the characters fresh, which is the key to a successful comedy sequel. But 15 years after the first “Zoolander,” is there still an appetite for these lovably dumb male models? And are they still even lovably dumb? In this sequel, once again directed by Ben Stiller, they are not.

The original film was a silly comedy that played on the conventions of conspiracy thrillers like “The Manchurian Candidate,” and it earned its status as a cult classic. “Zoolander” has aged well and isn’t going away anytime soon, but it’s unlikely that “Zoolander 2” will grow on audiences in the same way.

The sequel continues to play with the trappings of a conspiracy thriller. In the opening minutes, Justin Bieber is assassinated, setting up a “Da Vinci Code”-esque adventure that forces Derek (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) to come out of retirement. The two went through a traumatic experience together shortly after the events of the first film. They haven’t spoken since the accident, but that all changes when they’re invited by incomprehensible fashion god Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) to participate in one of her shows. Once they get to the show, however, they’re treated like jokes. They are no longer the men they used to be, and all Derek wants is to prove to Child Services that he’s fit to raise his son.

The opening setpiece involving Bieber on the run is well done, and further proof of Stiller’s skills as a director. Few comedic directors make movies as cinematic as Stiller. The laughs aren’t always there, as is the case with “Zoolander 2,” but looking at earlier films like “The Cable Guy” and “Tropic Thunder,” he’s capable of matching the styles of the movies he’s emulating and poking fun at. At times, “Zoolander 2” is as flashy as the glossy mysteries it’s riffing on.

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Movie Review: “While We’re Young”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Director
Noah Baumbach

After “Frances Ha” and Noah Baumbach’s upcoming film, “Mistress America,” it felt safe to assume the writer-director had taken on a new demeanor, because there’s a joy to those films rarely seen in his past work. As it turns out, it was wrong to presume that he was done with his days of making audiences squirm, because that side of Baumbach has returned with a vengeance. “While We’re Young” is perhaps the filmmaker’s most unpleasant picture to date, and that’s a compliment.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple. They’re comfortable with the choices they’ve made, including not having kids, but they begin to question those choices when they see the family their friends have built and, especially, after they meet a young and overly hip couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The two youngsters are wild and free, which is a lifestyle Josh and Cornelia attempt to emulate. The middle-aged couple begins to feel young again, thanks to some funky hats and hip hop dance classes, but his fantasy doesn’t last too long, as the older couple begins to realize that maybe this isn’t how people their age should be acting.

“While We’re Young” is a mix of the old and new Baumbach. It’s as cringe-inducing as his early work, but it’s also as accessible as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” The film is filled to the brim with jokes and awkwardly comedic scenarios, almost to the point of exhaustion. Baumbach has recently exhibited a strong eye for pacing; he’s telling his stories with a faster pace, without ever making them contrived, rushed or any less human. His recent work is as driven by story as it is by character, and Baumbach balances the two rather nicely.

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Movie Review: “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson, Dan Stevens, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley, Steve Coogan, Rami Malek
Director
Shawn Levy

In a move that is both shrewd and a bit cynical, the final installment of the “Night at the Museum” series takes place (mostly) in London. The first two “Museum” films earned $560 million in worldwide box office, so the move makes financial sense as well as creative sense, since it gives the writers a chance to try new things. This turns out to be a smart move on all fronts, as “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” is easily the best of the bunch. The scripts have gotten progressively smarter, and director Shawn Levy executes a couple of stunning visual sequences the likes of which the “Museum” series has never seen.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), night guard at the New York Museum of Natural History, is about to pull off a mind-blowing presentation with the help of his magically re-animated friends, but they start to behave erratically and cause a panic. He eventually discovers that the tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) is running out of power, and the only person who knows how to restore its power is his father Merenkahre (Sir Ben Kingsley), of whom there is a figure in the London Museum of Natural History. Larry pulls some strings to get both him and his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) transferred to London to solve the problem, and they get a bunch of unexpected help along the way. Now they just need to get past every wax figure in the London museum, who have awoken for the first time and have no idea how this whole thing works.

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Movie Review: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn
Director
Ben Stiller

Hollywood has been actively trying to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for nearly two decades, with names like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen all attached at some point in one capacity or another. It’s curious, then, that the way the movie finally ended up getting made was to not remake it all. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t really resemble James Thurber’s 1939 short story (or the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye) that much apart from its daydreaming title character, although that was probably for the best. While Stiller has retained the core spirit of the original story, he’s produced a more modernized, feel-good road movie that’s got a bit of a “Forrest Gump” vibe to it without quite the same heavy-handedness.

Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a timid photo editor at Life Magazine who has a tendency to zone out, getting lost in elaborate daydreams where he’s as adventurous and brave as he wishes he could be in real life. Walter can’t even muster up the courage to speak with office crush Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), and he’s running out of time after it’s revealed that the magazine is transitioning from print to a digital-only publication, with layoffs imminent. When a new film roll from renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) arrives at the office one day, Walter discovers that negative #25 – the one intended for the cover of Life’s final issue – is missing. With his condescending boss (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter embarks on the first adventure of his life to track down Sean, and hopefully, the missing photo too.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Between Two Ferns

Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”

The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.

The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.

A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.

  

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