Zoolander (2001)

2016 #121
Ben Stiller | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

Zoolander15 years before flop comedy Zoolander 2, there was Zoolander… which wasn’t a big hit either (it was 2001’s 68th highest-grossing film). Nonetheless, it developed some kind of mainstream-cult appeal, resulting in: a) that sequel, and b) me, on a night when I fancied something undemanding, deciding I should see what the fuss was about.

The story of an almost-past-it model who’s brainwashed into being an assassin, it’s essentially a one joke film (“aren’t models dumb?”), but gets surprisingly good mileage out of that. Not relentlessly amusing, nor the best thing on anyone’s CV, but some bits are very funny.

3 out of 5

Mystery Men (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #65

They’re not your average superheroes.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: PG (uncut, 1999) | PG (cut on video, 2000)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary, Night at the Museum)
Hank Azaria (Grosse Pointe Blank, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian)
William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia)
Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Director
Kinka Usher

Screenwriter
Neil Cuthbert (Hocus Pocus, The Adventures of Pluto Nash)

Based on
The Mysterymen, a superhero team originally appearing in Flaming Carrot Comics, a comic book by Bob Burden.

The Story
When supervillain Casanova Frankenstein is released from prison, wannabe superhero Mr Furious overhears his plan to destroy reality. With the city’s genuine protector out of action, Mr Furious and his chums the Shoveler and the Blue Raja recruit a gang of other wannabes to defeat Frankenstein.

Our Heroes
They’re not your classic heroes, they’re the other guys: a ragtag gaggle of people with “powers”, like the Shoveler, who fights with a shovel, or Mr. Furious, who gets really angry, or the Blue Raja, who throws cutlery with great accuracy. These founding three are joined by Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), and recruit the mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi) to train them.

Our Villain
Criminally insane genius Casanova Frankenstein. Released from prison so that genuine superhero Captain Amazing had someone to fight, Frankenstein manages to capture his nemesis and plots to unleash the reality-bending Psycho-frakulator on the world — with only our inept heroes to stand in his way.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Amazing! Played by Greg Kinnear, the resident superhero of Champion City is too darn good at his job. With no crime left to fight, his corporate sponsors are pulling their funding — unless he can use his alter ego, influential billionaire Lance Hunt, to get one of his adversaries released…

Memorable Quote
The Shoveler: “If we had a billionaire like Lance Hunt as our benefactor…”
Mr. Furious: “That’s because Lance Hunt is Captain Amazing!”
The Shoveler: “Oh, here we go… Don’t start that again. Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses.”
Mr. Furious: “He takes them off when he transforms.”
The Shoveler: “That doesn’t make any sense, he wouldn’t be able to see!”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.” — The Sphinx

Memorable Scene
Mr Furious, the Blue Raja, and the Shoveler gather at the latter’s house (despite his wife’s protestations) to audition potential team members. Cue a stream of daft and/or outrageous ideas for superheroes, including the Reverse Psychologist, Squeegeeman, and PMS Avenger.

Making of
For some reason a rumour has persistently done the rounds that Mystery Men was actually directed by Tim Burton, and Kinka Usher was just an alias. Goodness knows why. Usher is in fact a commercials director, and went back to that world after his miserable experience here.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit — it lost to Hanging Up. If you have any idea what Hanging Up is, your memory’s better than mine.)

What the Critics Said
“This slapstick and effects vehicle depends on poker-faced performances, production design that enhances the story partly because it doesn’t have to compensate for it, and a premise that provides seemingly inexhaustible opportunities for pratfalls and clever lines. The characters have been designed to make fun of themselves, disguising the craft of writer Neil Cuthbert and director Kinka Usher in getting us to laugh at them.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 60%

What the Public Say
“this movie is incredibly underrated because it parodies other Superhero movies unbelievably well, and no one had the chance to see that 15 years ago. […] It does what any good parody does, by taking the expected and turning it on its head. How do other Superhero groups form? The government decides it’s a good idea to have a Supergroup. Or they all meet in some intergalactic prison. Or they form to protect the world from the Legion of Doom. None of them hold a barbecue. None of them have a female team member who kicks ass, speaks her mind, angers everyone, and wears real clothing. The movie takes every expected and turns it on its ass […] I believe if it came out this summer, or even in the fall, it would have a much bigger and better reaction. People would watch it and instinctively compare it to the other Superhero super groups they’re familiar with. It would resonate better now, and fans would have a chance to really laugh at the ridiculousness of Superheroes.” — Maria Spiridigliozzi

Verdict

Was Mystery Men ahead of its time? Coming out in 1999, it was a year ahead of the superhero revival that X-Men kickstarted. Or maybe it was behind its time? Visually, it’s on a par with other ’90s superhero efforts like Batman Forever (and I don’t mean that derogatorily). Either way, it’s an undervalued comedy. The ensemble cast are all perfect — I didn’t even have room above to mention Tom Waits as mad inventor Dr A. Heller, Eddie Izzard as henchman Tony P., or Claire Forlani as the love interest. The material they have to deliver is both witty and suitably silly, and it incorporates superhero tropes and references without relying on them. In the sub-subgenre of superhero comedies, all others are number two, or lower.

#66 never happened… to the other fella.

Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

2015 #24
Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

4 out of 5

* I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

2014 #112
David O. Russell | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Flirting with DisasterDavid O. Russell’s second feature sees adoptee Ben Stiller go on a kerazee road trip to find his birth parents, accompanied by dissatisfied wife Patricia Arquette and kooky adoption agency psychologist Téa Leoni, along the way bumping into Arquette’s high school crush (Josh Brolin) and his husband (Richard Jenkins). Cue an almost-PG-13 sex comedy told among sketch-like encounters with quirky people who turn out to not be Stiller’s folks.

Despite a bitty structure, it’s a pretty amusing farce, with a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Now merely a footnote in the filmographies of everyone involved, it deserves a degree of rediscovery.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Madagascar (2005)

2008 #89
Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath | 82 mins | TV | U / PG

MadagascarIt had been my impression that this summer’s sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, was a weaker follow-up to a middling original. Clearly I was reading the wrong review, because Rotten Tomatoes offers a different consensus: “an improvement on the original, with more fleshed-out characters, crisper animation and more consistent humor.” Oh. So what of the original?

The characters may not offer great depth, but they serve their purpose well enough. The plot focuses on Marty the zebra, voiced by Chris Rock, who wants to escape to the wild, and Alex the lion, voiced by Ben Stiller, who doesn’t — but doesn’t have a choice when they’re whisked off half-an-hour in. This might leave David Schwimmer’s giraffe Melman and Jada Pinkett Smith’s hippo Gloria with little to do but support, but in an 80-minute kids’ animation you can’t expect an Altman-esque portmanteau.

The animation is better than I expected. At the time, the angular style looked cheap, like a step back from the realism-aiming work of Pixar and the Shrek team. It’s just stylised however, still allowing plenty of expression in characters’ faces and detail in their movements and the locations. It’s not a exceptional example of how brilliant computer animated films can be (unquestionably Pixar’s forte, especially in the likes of Ratatouille and WALL-E’s earlier scenes), but it’s better than some sparse and clunky efforts (such as Aardman’s Flushed Away).

Equally, the humour is above average. Large laughs may be sporadic but are there, particularly in a few moments that nicely spoof other films. Standouts include Planet of the Apes and American Beauty — clearly aimed at the adult audience who have been dragged along by the kids, have come expecting Pixar-level entertainment, or want to see what Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen can be doing in a family film. Plus there’s the penguins, a little band of wannabe escapees who thankfully aren’t overused, especially as the last few years have seen a severe overload of penguin movies (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, Surf’s Up…) If there’s one element that could’ve been bumped up it’s the monkeys; on the other hand, like the penguins, they’re not done to death.

Madagascar doesn’t reach the highs of Pixar — no surprise there — but it’s at least nudging the ballpark. If the sequel’s better then I might even seek it out before it makes it all the way down to TV.*

4 out of 5

* I never did; and now it’s been on TV (several times), I still haven’t. ^

The Cable Guy (1996)

2008 #79
Ben Stiller | 88 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Cable GuyThe best thing I have to say about The Cable Guy is that the opening titles were very well done.

The second-best thing I have to say is that a subplot featuring director Ben Stiller as a faded-child-star twin-killer is very neatly integrated into the film, seeming utterly pointless until it has a near-vital role in the climax. That’s a pleasing piece of writing/editing right there. Unfortunately, the point this seems to be aiming at — that TV rules our life too much, that we’re too addicted to it, etc etc — is not only old hat, but also rendered meaningless in this instance by the lack of impact: TV goes off for the night, and one guy picks up a book. Oh, wow. And to top it off, thanks to an unnecessary final beat, it seems Jim Carrey’s titular character hasn’t actually learnt the lesson we thought he had.

Incidentally, The Cable Guy is a comedy, though at times it seems to wish you’d forget that so it could be a psychological stalker thriller. Perhaps that’s what it had wanted to be — for one thing, there are surprisingly accurate predictions for the future of telecommunications, although their coming true may simply have killed another joke (“play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!”) — until someone realised the idea was too silly to be taken completely seriously. How funny you find the end product will depend on whether you like the style of comedy Carrey employed in the early & mid-’90s, and whether you can stomach pointless asides that don’t do anything for the plot (final act freaky nightmare, step forward). There’s little else to engage interest — Matthew Broderick’s pseudo-protagonist is, perhaps, too nice and too eager to please, and the go-nowhere romantic subplot — his main action aside from being Carrey’s straight man — has all the depth and shape of something from a cookie cutter.

More fun than the jokes, actually, is playing Spot The Pre-Fame Comedy Star. Eyes open for young-looking turns from (in ease-of-identification order) Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, and Kyle Gass. And Eric Roberts randomly shows his face too, not that that’s relevant to anything.

The Cable Guy is rated 12, or PG-13 in the US, which may also be the last ages you’d enjoy it at.

2 out of 5

In case anyone’s wondering what’s happened to #77 & #78… Despite spending 23 months carefully posting reviews in order (well, the first two months are actually a bit of a muddle), it’s now December and I’m a few behind, so I’ve decided to throw numerical sequence to the wind and just post reviews as & when I get round to completing them. The main reason for this is to help drive things forward so that I can actually end 2008’s posting by December 31st, rather than having it drag on into 2009 and overlap with Year 3. I’m sure no one will really mind. Or care.