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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Stiller’

Once more unto the Phoenix, where – it would seem – the blight of allocated seating now extends even unto weekday evening screenings. The staff don’t like the policy, and I and apparently many other of the more vocal patrons of the joint don’t like the policy. And yet a poll of the membership has come down in favour of turning the getting of a decent seat in the smaller screen into a ruthless tactical exercise. Hey ho.

Luckily, there were only five of us in there when I went the other day, to see Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young. Baumbach is the kind of director whose name I vaguely know, and whose films I have have heard of, but I wouldn’t have been able to put those two bits of information together, and I was still slightly surprised to learn I’ve actually seen one of his other movies (Frances Ha from 2013 – and, of course, anyone who gets on so well with Greta Gerwig is clearly a good egg). Said movie struck me as a bit Woody Allen-esque in its subject and setting, and the same goes for While We’re Young, which is a comedy-drama about well-off metropolitan types.

wwy

Well, probably more of a full-on comedy, I suppose. Regular readers will know my aversion to most mainstream American comedies, on the grounds that they are – erm, how can I put this? – not funny, but the fact that While We’re Young opens with an extended quote from Ibsen should tip the attentive viewer off that this is not a typical mainstream American comedy.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily-married couple in their early forties (as the theme of acting your own age is central to the movie, I feel obliged to mention that Stiller is not) who believe themselves to be happy with their lifestyle. Both are film-makers, one way or another, and they have accepted they’re not going to have children. This puts them rather at odds with most of their set, whose lives essentially revolve around grappling with infants of various sizes.

The plot proper gets underway when they encounter another couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are twenty years their junior and Josh and Cornelia find themselves rather captivated by the passion for life that the young people have – the fact that Jamie is a fan of Joshua’s back catalogue may have something to do with it, as well.

But is everything quite as it seems? Could it be that Josh and Cornelia have simply embarked on a futile attempt to cling onto the vestiges of their own youth? And is Jamie’s interest in Josh quite as straightforward as it seems? It soon becomes apparent that the generation gap is still in existence, and before too long someone’s going to come a cropper falling into it.

Fans of the bodily-fluids-and-profanity school of humour may not find much to attract them here, but While We’re Young made me laugh a lot, particularly in its first half. There are few more reliable sources of comedy than people failing to act in an age-appropriate way and the sight of Ben Stiller attempting to bond with hipsters and Naomi Watts tackling a hip-hop dance class provides many opportunities for proper laughs. The film has a nice line in sharp, deadpan dialogue, too: ‘You’ve made a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels seven hours too long,’ someone tells Josh of his latest opus, while a scene in which he is diagnosed with arthritis by his doctor is also extremely droll: ‘Arthritis arthritis?’ he yelps, distraught. ‘I usually just say it the once,’ replies the physician, unflappably.

Above all, this part of the film is a smart and insightful comedy of manners and social embarrassment with some great set pieces and moments of real perceptiveness: there’s a nice sequence quietly drawing attention to the way that middle-aged people are more likely to adopt new technology than the young. And it does address what seems to me to be a problem for the childless thirty- and forty-something: what exactly do you do with your life to give it value, without either seeming self-indulgent or looking like you’re in a state of arrested development? I’ve seen plenty of people in this situation who wind up taking refuge in the dreaded Ironic Sensibility.

However, there’s not a great deal of scope for plot here, which is probably why the second half of the film concerns itself with knottier and less universal issues – namely, the values of the different generations and whether a lack of commonality here is a serious problem, or only to be expected (or perhaps both). Baumbach’s line of approach on this is the question of authenticity in documentary film-making, which has been a live issue over the last few years in the wake of films like Catfish and Searching For Sugar Man, which were accused of either manipulating the truth or being out-and-out hoaxes. There’s what looks very like a gloves-off swipe at Catfish in particular here, but Baumbach’s attempt to tie this in to the theme of generational difference feels just a little laboured. It’s true that many younger people nowadays interact with culture in a wholly different way to how things were in the pre-digital age, but then so do quite a few older ones as well.

It’s also perhaps a little disappointing that the second half of the film is centred so firmly on Joshua, while the first part was told at least partly from Cornelia’s point of view. This is not because of any weakness in Ben Stiller’s performance – he is as accomplished an actor as ever – but simply because it turns the film into a piece about a middle-aged white guy possibly heading for a mid-life crisis, and we are not short of iterations of that story. It makes the film a little more conventional than it perhaps needed to be. (When it comes to the younger couple, the film gives much more prominence to Adam Driver, too: apart from a couple of scenes, Amanda Seyfried really gets quite little to do.)

The same is true of how the story resolves itself. To be fair, the film is largely built around the premise that a refusal to admit you are ageing is going to result in you looking increasingly foolish as time goes by, but this isn’t quite the same thing as the whole-hearted endorsement of thorough-going normalcy that the end of the movie actually feels like. Then again, this is ultimately still a mainstream film on some level, so I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised. While We’re Young  is at least a mainstream film with some intelligence and wit about it, and one which made me laugh a lot despite my ultimate misgivings about parts of it. Worth seeing, especially if your fortieth birthday is not too distant a memory.

 

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Ah, a new year is upon us, bringing with it the usual abrupt shift in the type of films going on general release: from glittering festive spectaculars with no ulterior motive beyond simply luring in an audience, to more thoughtful, high-minded pieces made with half an eye on the Academy Award shortlist. It is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the multiplex’s answer to a January detox, and I sometimes find it a little hard to cope with – could they not spread these films out just a bit more?

Oh well, such is life. One of the first off the blocks this year is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, produced by Ben Stiller, and starring Ben Stiller too. Well, that’s one way of keeping the budget down. Something about the trailer for this film, the first time I saw it, really put me off: it looked terribly twee and a little bit hackneyed, with the secret of finding happiness in a humdrum life promised by a gaggle of multi-millionaire film industry creative types. However, a close family member fancied going to the cinema, but wasn’t keen on the Mandela movie, so off we went to see it anyway (I will, as regular readers know, turn up to almost anything, especially if someone else is buying the ticket).

mitty

Stiller plays the eponymous character, a reserved everyman working in the photo archive of Life magazine. His true nature, which is that of an adventurous romantic, only finds expression through his rich and bewildering fantasy life – even if this does threaten to give him a reputation as a chronic daydreamer amongst those who know him. One of his most meaningful relationships is with a photojournalist (Sean Penn) whom he has never actually met. He certainly seems to have no realistic prospect of getting with a co-worker he quietly bears a torch for (played by Kristen Wiig – the co-worker, not the torch).

Then the magazine is bought out by a gaggle of bearded, suited nincompoops who announce the physical edition of the periodical is to be discontinued. The cover of the special last issue is to be a photograph specially taken by Penn’s character, and entrusted to Walter’s care – but he can’t find it anywhere! If he is to meet his obligation to the magazine, Walter is going to have to track his friend down and find out where the missing negative is…

This is based on a famous short story by James Thurber, although I suspect not a great deal of the original has survived. One of the things that gives the lie to my attempts to seem properly cultured is that there are many celebrated literary figures like Thurber with whom I am barely familiar – this case being particularly inexcusable, as Thurber short stories are always popping up in the books I constantly use at work. A Thurber admirer would probably have their own view of Stiller’s movie, but I have to say I very much enjoyed it in the end.

On paper it does look like a by-the-numbers, carpe diem, live your dreams piece of fluff – but it is lifted well above this level by some beautiful photography, inventive direction, and a cleverly reserved and slightly off-beat script. This is considerably less broad than most of the films I have seen from Ben Stiller, and much more to my taste. The more spectacular excursions into Walter’s dream-life are very funny, but to begin with the real world of the film exists at a slight angle to reality too – there’s an odd but subtle formalism to the designs and some of the dialogue that helps to smooth the joins between fantasy and reality. As Walter becomes more rooted in the real world, this diminishes somewhat – and it’s to Stiller’s credit that this is done with such great subtlety.

The transformation of Walter Mitty from, essentially, a ‘grey piece of paper’ to an inspirational, aspirational hero is perhaps not done with quite the same level of nuance – we are tipped off to the kind of person he was in his youth very early on – but this was always going to be a difficult balancing act. Personally, I liked the film very much – but then the story of a man escaping from the confines of a dispiriting office job and going on a series of surreal international adventures was always going to chime with me in a very particular way.

I think this is a good film, though it is arguably quite old-fashioned – the central message of going out and experiencing the world first-hand, rather than living in daydreams or cocooning yourself in management-speak and only communicating via the internet, is arguably nothing very new or surprising. Nevertheless it still seems to me to have some validity to it, and I did find the film bringing back a lot of memories and even stirring up just a little of my own spirit of adventure. I understand it has received mixed reviews, which rather surprises me. As of now, this is the best new film I have seen in 2014. This is not saying much, but I suspect it has a good chance of still being near the top of the list in twelve months’ time – and that is noteworthy. A very thoughtful and wise movie; entertaining, too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 18th March 2004:

Old-fashioned hi-jinks of a distinctly different tenor are on offer in Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch, based – as if it needed to be said – on the seventies TV show of the same name. I am only just barely old enough to dimly recall the series on its original UK transmission, but it seemed to re-run constantly in the eighties – and in case, surely everyone has the bare essentials branded into their brains by now: WASPish cop, Polish cop, more-than-a-bit-racist informant, the most iconic car in television history, a relationship with undertones that inspired a thousand slash fanfics, running around, groovy theme music…

The new movie is sort of grimly impressive in the way it takes all the recognisable elements of the Starsky & Hutch TV show and then relentlessly guts them in order to provide a generic vehicle for two popular contemporary comedians. Ben Stiller is Starsky! Owen Wilson is Hutch! And Awix is getting a bit sick of all these sneeringly ironic remakes of classic TV shows…

That’s not to say that Starsky & Hutch isn’t an amusing and well-made film on its own terms. Set in 1975 California, the plot sees the neurotic Starsky and the more-than-slightly-corrupt Hutch teamed up and put on the trail of millionaire drug dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn in an impressively tacky perm and ‘tache). Snoop Dogg plays Huggy Bear, not especially well. What follows is basically a series of comedy sketches poking fun at various police-procedural cliches and seventies fads. Some of these work better than others – in particular, an Easy Rider parody made me chuckle rather a lot, as did a couple of gags at the expense of famous bits from the TV show’s title sequence.

But these moments are pretty much all the movie has to do with the TV show. There’s no attempt to recreate the characters from the series, the two leads basically recycle their established comic personae – Stiller is twitchy and a bit straight-laced, but at least he at times bears a striking resemblence to Paul Michael Glaser. This is more than can be said for Wilson, who, as ever, resembles a boy-band version of Jimmy Stewart following a botched rhinoplasty. Glaser and David Soul are wheeled on at the end, you may be interested to hear, for a crushingly knowing encounter with their replacements – but they have the decency to look properly embarrassed. Antonio Fargas is nowhere to be seen – always a cool customer, that boy…

I sort of enjoyed this film but I still came out feeling a bit cheated. If you changed the character names and got rid of the Ford Gran Torino this could be Bad Boys 3 or something completely new and you’d never know. It’s really just an extremely cynical attempt to cash in on the value of the Starsky & Hutch brand, more brazen even than previous attempts like Charlie’s Angels or Lost In Space. The film-makers seem rather contemptuous both of the original series, thinking it has nothing material to offer a contemporary film, and also the audience, thinking we’ll stumble along to any old thing with a famous name. (Although they may be right – this film has taken over $40 million at the American box office alone at the time of writing.)

Anyway, surely I faintly hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped (unless the long-threatened film version of The Six Million Dollar Man is finally on its way) – there can’t be that many more classic TV shows to mess up, and they certainly can’t make a film adaptation less true to the spirit of the original than this. That’s the strange anomaly at the centre of this film: as a knockabout comedy, it’s pretty good – but as a Starsky & Hutch movie, it’s a bit disappointing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 2nd 2004:

Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog story hasn’t got a huge amount going for it at first glance. Starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, neither of whom are exactly Kubrick-like when it comes to rationing their appearances, and with a plot most movie-goers will be able to predict in their sleep, it looks like an appropriately dodgy prospect.

Stiller plays White Goodman, owner of the mighty personal fitness chain Globogym (slogan: ‘We’re better than you and we know it’), a man with interesting dress sense, engaged in a constant losing battle with the English language. His latest undertaking is to buy and tear down local gym Average Joe’s (motto: ‘Failure is an option’) by foreclosing their mortgage. Vaughn plays Peter, the owner of Average Joe’s, a laid-back dude who is mildly perturbed to learn he needs to raise $50,000 to save his business. Luckily one of his slightly peculiar regulars spots that the upcoming national Dodgeball championships are about to be held in Las Vegas, with $50,000 as the first prize. So Peter and his band of losers, freaks, and delusional maniacs form a team and enter – little realising that White has learned of their scheme and put together the most formidable Dodgeball team in history, just to thwart them…

On paper Dodgeball looks slightly like last year’s British comedy Blackball, which made the same kind of sports-related jokes (and had Vaughn in it too). However, on screen they are much different, mainly because Dodgeball is very, very funny, occupying territory somewhere between an Austin Powers movie and a very long Simpsons episode (one of the voice cast of the latter show has a cameo here). It’s not sophisticated. It’s certainly not subtle. But it did make me laugh a lot.

Mostly this is down to Thurber’s gag-rich script which leaves no stone unturned in search of a punchline. True, the film relies to an astonishing degree on the comedic potential of the word ‘balls’ and also of people being repeatedly whacked in the head and/or groin by heavy objects – but somehow this doesn’t get tiresome. There are lots of other bits of this film that shouldn’t be nearly as funny as they are – most obviously, Alan Tudyk’s character, who is under the impression he’s a pirate – but Thurber gets away with it through verve and charm and energy.

Stiller is impressively OTT as the rather grotesque villain of the piece, complementing a rather deadpan performance by Vaughn. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the guys playing Vaughn’s regulars, and somewhere in the middle of all this is Christine Taylor as Vaughn’s love interest, probably the closest this film gets to having a normal person as a character. Rip Torn gives one of his rip-roaringly overplayed turns as a Dodgeball coach, too. There are also a number of big-name cameos at unlikely points, but to say who they are would only spoil the jokes.

This hasn’t been a particular good year for pure, knockabout comedies so far, Shrek 2 excepted, which makes Dodgeball a welcome release. It won’t change anyone’s life (except maybe the writer-director’s) or pioneer a new movement in comedy. But it will make you laugh, whether you want to or not. A lot of fun.

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