Ben Stiller has been talking up a film of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for a very, very long time. And, $90 million later, here it is. The adaptation by Steve Conrad, which went through a claimed sixty drafts, is very much in the league of an earlier Conrad screenplay, “The Weather Man,” which took Chicago as a setting in a way that “Mitty” takes Manhattan and Iceland: Poignancy arises through small details not necessarily observed by an essentially passive milquetoast of a protagonist, but very much seen by the audience. Stiller’s Mitty is, well… a guy. (A guy who has some plot-convenient skateboard skills for a fifty-year-old office guy.) Playing a photo archivist, or, “negative asset manager,” for LIFE magazine, already defunct but about to go online-only in the world of the film, Mitty doodles and dawdles through the world, swept away by momentary bursts of special-effects fantasy while his life is changed by the presence of a cake made by his mother. Read the rest of this entry »
From courting in “Meet the Parents (2000) and marrying in “Meet the Fockers” (2004), to childrearing in “Little Fockers,” there are more lax yuks about retired CIA agent Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) humiliating son-in-law and male nurse Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), now the father of the title twins. The prior installment focused on Jack’s issues of distrust and domination. This one is about Greg’s standing as a wife-satisfier, breadwinner and childraiser. In the second film, Greg embarrassed himself at his engagement party by telling family secrets under the influence of truth serum. Now he mocks Jack at a urologist confab and it gets back to the in-laws via YouTube. Instead of Jack injecting Greg in a bathroom, this time Greg injects Jack in a bathroom; the sexy housekeeper who deflowered teenaged Greg is updated with a sexy pharm flack for “boner medicine” (Jessica Alba). Flamenco, not capoeira, is the hobby of Greg’s dad (Dustin Hoffman). At the dinner table, projectile vomit replaces arterial sprays. Snickering wordplay with Fockers’ name remains at the level of a sophomore locker room. “Manopause” replaces “manary” glands. And a cousin of that toddler whose first word was “asshole,” is old enough to ask the darndest thing: “Can a girl poop from her vagina?” Directing a screenplay by Larry Stuckey and John Hamburg, Paul Weitz (“American Dreamz,” “American Pie”) manages to kill most punchlines and pratfalls with lousy timing and framing. With Teri Polo, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel and Deepak Chopra as himself. 98m. (Bill Stamets)
“Little Fockers” opens Wednesday, December 22.
Tom McGrath (the two “Madagascar” animated features) directs smart kid stuff with Hegelian super-heroics and a get-the-girl saga. The first 3D effect comes with the Dreamworks Animation logo of a boy fishing upon a crescent moon: he casts his line straight into the audience, as if to snag our eyeballs with his hook. The rest of “Megamind” imagines spectacular civic spaces for Metro City. The 3D seems designed to enhance instead of hammer. Two interstellar babies with superpowers crash on our planet. The white one rolls through the gates of an estate and gets a privileged upraising. The other one, with blue skin, lands behind bars at a prison “For the Criminally Gifted,” where he’s adopted by convicts. They later meet at ‘Lil Gifted School, where the former uses his superpowers as a show-off do-gooder and the latter is a chronic failure at mainstreaming, so he repurposes his super-human cerebellum for inventive villainy. Read the rest of this entry »
As a first-time screenwriter and producer, if you choose to trust the end credits of “I’m Still Here,” actor Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) has cast himself “as himself.” Actor and first-time director Casey Affleck (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), co-credited as screenwriter and producer, likewise appears here “as himself” directing a documentary-style profile of an actor who stops acting to start rapping. The teaserly title of this folly of conceits serves as a disclaimer that Phoenix is indeed still acting. And Affleck is likely the co-cinematographer and co-editor, as the credits state. He appeared in “Gerry” (2002) where he also got writing and editing credits. “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin Phoenix,” says Joaquin Phoenix, while wearing a sports jersey for the Defiance Bulldogs. He announces his retirement from acting, grows a beard, gets fat, tapes his broken sunglasses, abuses his assistants, raps badly and acts like a talentless asshole all at the same time. No one involved acts as if they have anything of interest to say about documentary or celebrity or self-parody. For a better reveal during the end credits, check out Michelle Citron’s doc-deconstructive “Daughter Rite” (1980). With Antony Langdon, P Diddy Combs, David Letterman, Ben Stiller and lots of others who may or may not have signed releases. 108m. (Bill Stamets)
“I’m Still Here” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
The only half-good thing I can find to say about this unwatchable time-waster is that someone designed an apt match between a name and a hairdo. Marc Pease (Jason Schwartzman)–I love that “c” in “Marc”–wears his hair long and permed like a Renaissance prince at a seventies prom. It’s an icky package. Marc is a delusional, arrested adolescent with plans grander than his means. No poignancy is felt in that gap. Eight years ago, this high-schooler with stage dreams fled act two of “The Wiz” in his Tin Man costume. Now dating Meg (Anna Kendrick), a senior at his alma mater, he drives a limo. He plans to sell his late grandmother’s condo so he can cut a demo with his a cappella octet that’s busted down to a quartet. He expects Mr. Gribble (Ben Stiller), his former drama teacher, to be his producer, since he once lied to his face about Marc’s talent and chances of success to get him out of his office. But when Marc listens to part of a tape labeled “Meg’s Singing,” Mr. Gribble sounds like he’s more than Meg’s vocal coach. Big things might happen when the curtain rises on the new production of “The Wiz.” Fans of Schwartzman and Stiller may recognize their faces and voices and facsimiles of their default comic personas, but fans of “Love Liza” (2002) will never guess that “The Marc Pease Experience” was directed by the same Todd Louiso, the actor who then made his directing debut with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a gasoline-fumes-sniffer. For his second feature, co-written with Jacob Koskoff, Louiso coaches no actorly output whatsoever. From huffer to hoofer, he trips and falls badly. It’s amazing, although in this case uninteresting, to see so many things to go wrong in one film. With Jay Paulson, Zachary Booth, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Gabrielle Dennis. 84m. (Bill Stamets)
“The Marc Pease Experience</i> opens Friday at Pipers.
In a sequel to “Night at the Museum,” Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) returns as a steward of museum specimens and a seeker of his true self. Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the duo who earlier wrote “Herbie Fully Loaded,” adapted Milan Trenc’s 1993 children’s book “The Night at the Museum” for the 2006 film. Larry was then a failed inventor of gizmos. Perennially evicted, this divorced dad also failed to show up for Parent Career Day at his son’s school. He got an $11.50-an-hour job as the night guard at a New York City museum where historic wax figures, toy soldiers, taxidermized animals and a dino skeleton came to life every night, thanks to an ancient Egyptian gizmo. Now Larry is a wildly successful purveyor of gizmos who risks blowing a big deal with Wal-Mart, so he can repatriate his old museum pals after they’re crated and trucked to the archives in D.C. Read the rest of this entry »
A denizen of the Central Park Zoo escaped to visit exotic Connecticut, but only got as far as Grand Central Station before he and his pursuing zoo pals were captured. Sent back to their African birthplace, these New Yorkers got stranded on the title island in 2005’s animated feature “Madagascar.” Co-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, and their co-writer Etan Cohen, deliver an entertaining episode in the further adventures of a lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), a giraffe (David Schwimmer) and a hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Penguins, lemurs and chimps are the critter equivalents of character actors, sidekicks, second bananas and all-around scene-stealers. The quartet takes off from Madagascar and soon crashes land on a savannah where they find vast populations of their own kinds. This raises issues of individualism for one-of-a-kinders homesick for the accolades of their human visitors back in New York City. Cue music from “Born Free” and quips about Alex Haley’s “Roots.” Thanks to some thirty million render hours, the foursome keep busy with a lively plot set in a wonderfully detailed Africa. Another band of New Yorkers—a bunch of ambushed tourists on a SUV safari—find themselves just as lost and just as resourceful for surviving the wilds of Africa. There’s the usual affirming of family values, following one’s true path, and standing by your friends. The inventive design and warm crossover humor should make this a pleasant chore for older siblings, caretakers and parents taking the core audience to the theater. With Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric The Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bernie Mac, Sherri Shepherd, Alec Baldwin and will.i.am. 89m. (Bill Stamets)
January and August of most years are the dodgiest months of all as studio-film releases go, when long-delayed, long-tampered-with and long-painful dogs are let out of their cages. The big studios (and Lionsgate) have in the past year or so done the service to the working reviewer of failing to preview these lost puppies for reviewers. (Although there is a Texas-based reviewer for Variety who notes he’s assigned each Christmas morning to see the most violent release of the season that seeps up under the seasonal tree or bush.)
Folks who see a lot of movies professionally may be even more sensitive than the average movie-lover. Where the guy down the street can say of an enterprise like “The Rocker,” “Nuh-uh. The idea of Rainn Wilson as an aging musical wanna-be who seems to be sporting a diaper turns my stomach. Want to get pizza?” and no one’s the poorer. Steve Coogan playing a one-note, stuck-in-one-gear Steve Coogan-ish asshole in “Tropic Thunder” or “Hamlet 2”? How about sushi? Several writers in the 1980s made the suggestion that Steve Guttenberg was a star because he was an only-slightly-handsomer version of mid-level casting executives. More recently, the rapid-fire output of Judd Apatow-produced comedies about slightly shrubby losers getting the girl have led to similar musings about wish-fulfillment. (Although I’d say the confidence the somewhat slimmed-down Seth Rogen shows in “Pineapple Express” is a nice boost up from, say, Jonah Hill’s apoplectically red-faced spleen and panic in “Superbad.”)
Among this week’s movies that were available for preview is Idit Cebula’s larky French comedy, “Two Lives Plus One,” the story of a Parisian wife pushed and pulled on all sides by her controlling family and whose life changes when she buys a laptop and starts keeping—and publishing—journals. She’s played by Emmanuelle Devos, an actress whose charm goes beyond beauty and sensuality: she’s simply someone you cannot but stare at. She’s the same way in movies like Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen”: wide almond eyes with a steady gaze, a slight overbite, assured, reserved—you remember that movies were once more than the sum of spare parts from the house of cards that is stock plot-development. Pictures of people talking, and more importantly, listening, can be more than illustrated radio. The French still make movies like that.
Although Devos has become a substantial star on her home turf, she displays the kind of expressiveness seen more often in American movies in the faces and behaviors of character actors, rather than the well-heeled lead players. Her characters aren’t asked to experience some kind of spiritual transformation or to lead soldiers into battle—the “journey” doesn’t involve an identikit destination, a predetermined, predestined, pre-masticated ending, but the particulars along the way.
But most importantly, she simply has “it”: an actor who, as the saying goes, the camera loves, something beyond physical beauty. Mere charisma? Original Zen: someone you would gratefully watch on any journey. A few names off the top of the head: Luis Guzman. Marisa Tomei. Laurence Fishburne. Shu Qi. Jean-Pierre Leaud. Bruno Ganz. Richard E. Grant. Danny McBride. Tom Wilkinson. Elias Koteas. Warren Oates. Bruce Greenwood. Like termites, they bite through the fabric of the rote story unfolding. (Thelma Ritter in Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street”: she sells multitudes.)
I’ll confess to a couple of other actors that when I see their name on posters, I get the willies. But, just as I’m seldom disproved in my sneaking suspicions that Ben Stiller will play a character that seems ready to scratch his skin off from nerves and physical discomfort, there are actors I’d watch in just about anything. Say, Chow Yun-Fat in “The Children of Huang Shi.” The director Roger Spottiswoode told me he had to be careful in that recent film about just how far back in the frame Chow was in some scenes: he could be fifty feet away, lighting up a cigarette, and your eye is immediately drawn, fixedly, toward his gestures. Godard said something once about the movies having, in the time since Griffith, forgotten about the wind in the trees. It’s good to remember wind in the hair, too, and the transport that can play across a face in that simple instant of communing with nature.
“Two Lives Plus One” opens Friday at Siskel. Some bad movies, too.
In an April interview with Los Angeles Daily News journalist Glenn Whipp, Ben Stiller brightly confessed the source of his latest itchy comedy: a twenty-year-old grudge against the director of “Platoon.” “I got there, and Oliver Stone looked at me and, said, ‘You’re cute.’ ‘You’re cute,’ that was it. I never got to audition.” It’s hard to imagine those words in Anne Meara’s mouth, let alone Oliver Stone’s.
“Tropic Thunder,” the result of that long-nurtured chip on the shoulder, directed, co-produced, co-written and starring Stiller, finds him playing Tugg Speedman, a desperately needy, deeply shallow actor in an immensely over-budgeted Vietnam war movie to end all war movies. His cohort of pampered performers-turned-grunts includes Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a fat actor from a movie series called “The Fatties” who farts a lot, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). Among other characters, Nick Nolte as the author of the project’s source novel, is cruelly wasted; Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a young black actor, makes almost no impression whatsoever; and a pyrotechnics guy played by Danny McBride (“Pineapple Express”) is almost the only breath of oxygen in the rank result.
Did you hear the joke about Robert Downey, Jr.? He’s in blackface. He’s an Australian actor who wants shiny metal trinkets so badly he does the opposite of Michael Jackson’s self-mutilation: he has his skin darkened. Hey! Stop it. Don’t laugh yet. Stop. Where the tragic case of Jackson’s self-mutilation carries layers upon layers of historical and psychological implication, what does this movie do? Lazarus can’t stop speaking street! Until he slips and he’s speaking Aussie! Downey’s eyes, ordinarily one of his most expressive features, are seldom in play. Downey’s debut as a child actor was in a film by his father, whose most accomplished, rudest comedy was “Putney Swope,” in which a black man is elevated to the heights of the advertising industry in 1969. Memorable line: “Putney is confusing originality with obscenity.”
Speaking of obscenity, Tom Cruise plays a grotesquely fat, hairy, bald middle-aged studio executive whose dance moves are as repulsive as his “Risky Business” ones were frisky. But it turns to pissy business when you discover that his character—Les Grossman, is that an Albanian name?—is like a child actor trying, badly, to improvise Mametian swears. “Fuck shit cocksucker shit!” isn’t quite as funny as, say, this genius bit from “American Buffalo”: “Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come. And I take nothing back, and I know you’re close with them.” Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux come within at least a galaxy’s distance of that outburst with Jack White sweating strung-out inanities about a “hobo’s dick cheese” and vivid descriptions of the gay sex he’ll perform on the other characters if they just untie him and feed him blow. Grossman’s hands and wrists are made up with the most skin-cracking, angry pink-white-flaking eczema. And the character might as well take a shit in the middle of the floor in scenes where he compulsively gyrates his woman-hipped bottom in the audience’s face.
“Tropic Thunder” is the kind of heavy meta that might work in sketches, such as the short-lived “Ben Stiller Show,” shot on a budget of a dollar and a dime. But as a want-to-be-painfully-hip comedy about soul-killing horseshit, it manages handily to be more the thing itself than its reflection. The reasons some writers claim to resent movies like “Fight Club” and “The Dark Knight”—that somehow it’s insincere for an artist to make a decamillion-dollar movie that satirizes consumer culture or that suggests the entire political culture has gone over to the “dark side” of brutal, fearful, vigilantism, is one I seldom feel attracted toward. “Tropic Thunder”? Twenty years of overcontemplation of old ideas in hundred-million-dollar full flower.
While there is much sautéed in the behind-the-scenes pandemonium of “Hearts of Darkness,” Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr’s documentary about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” not a single instant strikes as cleanly in human, humorous, behavioral or poetic grace as the outtake of Marlon Brando working his wind through an arch peroration, pausing, gacking and saying, much as he asks, “Milk Dud?” in “The Formula,” in character and in beautiful cadence, “I swallowed a bug.”
John Toll, who less than three years ago was cinematographer on Terence Malick’s luminous “The New World,” is called upon to make images that look like they were shot in the Philippines in the 1970s and developed there in a ditch. But as images go, the ones of Ben Stiller I’ll always treasure? The look on his face in “Your Friends And Neighbors” when Catherine Keener shouts during coitus, “Is there any chance you’re gonna shut the fuck up? Let’s just do it. I don’t need the narration, okay?” And stabbing a neck vein with a hypodermic in “Permanent Midnight” with an aggrieved grimace of “Hey, dad! Looking at me yet?”