Probably no film genre currently flashes a bigger “get out of jail free” card than the Hollywood comedy, if for no other reason than there being so many outstanding comedians that any movie employing even a half-dozen of them is guaranteed to feature a fistful of reasons to attend. Zoolander 2, however, has the comics and still isn’t worth seeing.
A follow-up to 2001’s fashion-industry/Bond-thriller satire, director/co-writer/star Ben Stiller’s slapstick starts off promisingly, with a very funny execution of Justin Bieber, and ends disastrously, with an unfunny, insanely protracted action finale involving Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, and Valentino. (Bieber plays himself surprisingly well; the fashionistas play themselves unsurprisingly terribly). In between, this goofball grab bag showcasing Stiller’s and Owen Wilson’s caricatures of preening male models is all hits and misses, albeit with the latter easily outweighing the former.
Among the perks: a witty news-footage montage explaining what transpired in the decade and a half since Zoolander; Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney as a hilariously post-ironic designer; the haughty and indecipherable accent Kristen Wiig devised for her fashion magnate; Kiefer Sutherland as one of Wilson’s spurned lovers; Benedict Cumberbatch as an ambisexual model named All. But everything else, including the sadly ill-used Will Ferrell, is a bummer, from the straight-woman waste of Pénélope Cruz to the awkward celebrity cameos (Billy Zane proves incapable of even self-parody) to the embarrassing dead air surrounding guest stars’ appearances, as though Stiller were granting us time in which to gasp and marvel at their presences. Zoolander 2 sags and limps when it should soar and sprint, and the lethargy is most evident in Stiller himself, who keeps accidentally dropping Derek Zoolander’s purse-lipped, empty-headed character and voice in favor of the banal “earnest” acting he’s been too frequently asked to deliver these past 15 years. Someone, I’m afraid, has been spending too much time at the museum.
Had you asked me before I caught writer/director Andrew Haigh’s marital drama 45 Years (currently playing at Iowa City’s FilmScene), I would have said that the Platters’ rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was one of the most romantic songs I’d ever heard. But have you ever really listened to those heart-rending lyrics? In his movie’s final minutes, Haigh and his transcendent star Charlotte Rampling invite you to truly hear, for maybe the first time, what’s being expressed in that song, and if you can get through it without weeping like an infant, you’re clearly made of stronger stuff than I. I kind of hate Haigh and Rampling for forever ruining (although really just changing) my feelings toward that tune. Yet I also adore them for it, because the subtle yet devastating 45 Years is all about long-held feelings and beliefs being challenged – if not always for the better, at least for the wiser.
The simple narrative, based on a short story by David Constantine, finds the contended marriage of Kate (Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) shaken by dreadful news in the days before the couple’s 45th-anniversary party: Nearly a half-century since her disappearance, the body of Geoff’s former lover Katya has finally been discovered. What happens next in this piercing character study shouldn’t be spoiled. Suffice it to say that as behavioral changes are noted and old notebooks and photographs are discovered, a seemingly perfect union begins to unravel, and Haigh displays as much insight and empathy with 45 Years’ elderly partners as he did with the young gay romantics of his heartbreaking feature-film debut Weekend. Courtenay is superb as a quietly broken man whose trauma is causing a potentially irrevocable backslide, turning him, unrecognizably, back into the person he may have been before his wife knew him. And with most of the film’s drama told not through dialogue but through her increasingly, complexly wounded expressions – what the New York Times’ A.O. Scott perfectly described as “emotions so strange and intense that they don’t quite have names” – Oscar nominee Rampling outdoes perhaps anything on her legendary résumé. Like her film, Rampling is achingly wise and warm here, and so penetratingly acute in her character study that your memories of 45 Years are inseparable from your memories of her face. None of them is likely to be forgotten.
NATIONAL PARKS ADVENTURE 3D
The Putnam Museum’s latest edu-doc is National Parks Adventure 3D. I want to stress the “Adventure” portion of that title, because what director/cinematographer Greg MacGillivray delivers in the opening minutes – soothing Robert Redford narration, slow camera sweeps over southwestern vistas, a mournful piano rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – might lead you to expect anything but. Stick with it, though, because this expectedly gorgeous endeavor is also unexpectedly, even thrillingly, varied in presentation: sensationally informative, joyfully inspiring, and even laugh-out-loud funny.
As we travel alongside a three-person team of adventurers, MacGillivray introduces us to the visual wonders of America’s National Parks, stopping at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and numerous other tourist destinations. The photography and lighting (Brad Ohlund is co-cinematographer) are as majestic and welcoming as you could want, yet National Parks Adventure 3D is far more than a celluloid photo spread. We’re also treated to engaging education about the parks’ origins and the preservation plan of naturalist John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, plus factoids that may take even older viewers by surprise. (Did you know that the collective expanses covered by our National Parks form an area three times as large as England?) We’re given folklore behind the stunning sights, with this Close Encounters fanatic especially taken with the our time spent at Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower. There are nerve-racking scenes of mountain-climbing and extreme biking, the latter activity earning a concerned “Whoa!” from Saturday’s crowd when a biker wiped out. But we also chuckled when said biker stood up unharmed and had the grace to look abashed for the camera, and happily there are similarly endearing moments all throughout the movie, as when Redford tells us to be alert for a particular park’s “giant terrifying bears” right before the movie cuts to an adorable prairie dog poking his head out of the ground. All told, National Parks Adventure 3D is 45 minutes of nature-film bliss, and it even ends with a smashing live rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” performed by Bruce Springsteen. Totally boss.