Skip to main content

Obey my dog!

Zoolander
(2001)

(SPOILERS) In which really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking, self-absorbed simpleton male model who can be manipulated like play-do Derek Zoolander is brainwashed by fiendish fashion designer Mugatu to assassinate the President of Malaysia. The only sign of Ben Stiller’s hilariously loopy fashion spoof showing its age is that some of the cameos come courtesy of now faded celebs. On the other hand, some of them (Donald Trump) seem to have circled right back round to relevance again. And, whether or not the sequel can match this (see this review), it bears emphasising that any movie directed by the comedy star is a visual tour de force.


Indeed, Stiller’s probably the best in his genre, even if he isn’t so hot right now. As an actor he’s half a decade past pulling in serious audiences (the last Night at the Museum was the least in the series at the box office, but surprised in as much as its performance was even in the same ballpark), yet he still has a very viable directorial career ahead of him, if only he sticks to playful eviscerating and skirts the sentiment. His The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake is a gorgeous-looking movie, but absent of even a fraction of the imagination of the Danny Kaye original and the bite and inventiveness of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. Overburdened with cloying sincerity, it ran resoundingly aground, both critically and financially.


Zoolander was only a very modest performer on release, and then mostly in the US (memorably, released directly in the wake of 9/11, the Twin Towers were nervously and needlessly erased from “offending” shots). Since then, though, its legend, like Ron Burgundy’s, has burgeoned exponentially. The lack of box office appeal of the sequel may (to attempt a positive spin) merely be confirmation that the original is a true cult movie, or it may simply be a result of crushing reviews and bad word-of-mouth (but when has that ever stopped a picture from opening?)


Stiller’s pop sensibilities lead him to fashion a bright and shiny bauble screenplay (with Drake Sather and John Hamburg), one attractive enough for Bret Easton Ellis to sue, on the grounds that his three-years earlier novel Glamorama concerned a dim watt male model caught up in a terrorist plot. Whether its parodying awards promos, adverts (Derek enthusiastically pouring Diet Coke in his hair) and interview sound bites, or exploring the art of the music montage (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, leading to a freak gasoline fight accident, is particularly mirthful), his sense of timing and pacing of gags is as honed as Derek’s sculpted cheekbones. And, at 89 minutes, he knows far, far better than to labour the premise or induce weariness.


One of the doubts of any comedy of this ilk is how to sustain the simpleton at its centre; make Derek too much of an idiot and you run the risk that audiences just won’t care. Indulge him and it can turn into a mawk-fest (see Norman Wisdom’s Pitkin). Stiller gets around this by making Zoolander’s stupidity central to the entire foolishness, and then surrounds him with (mostly) people who are as stupid or eccentric as he is. The one exception is his wife Christine Taylor, gamely playing the straight woman while all around her are having a whale of a time. Such a character is entirely necessary, of course, if there’s to be any grounding of the entire absurd edifice.


Stiller’s ably supported by best buddy Owen Wilson as rival model Hansel (“That Hansel’s so hot right now”), who is very nearly as stupid as Zoolander, only much more laidback and straight-up cooler. His mangling of the Malaysian president’s nationality (Micronesia, “that Eurasion dude”, and best of all “the claymation dude”) always gets a laugh (but not in Malaysia, where it was banned).


However, the biggest screen glutton is Will Ferrell’s Mugatu. I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a Ferrell performance as much since, and I didn’t really know his work at the time (Austin Powers aside). Mugatu is deliriously unhinged, even by Ferrell standards, his perma-hysteria impossible to resist, abetted by a steady stream of semi-improvisations – or just their intonation – are a delight (“Oh, I’m sorry, did my pin get in the way of your ASS?”; tipping his latte over devoted assistant Todd; “I’m a hot little potato right now”; and “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” on why no one else realises that all Derek’s looks are the same). Revisiting the movie, the only surprise is how limited his screen time is, so voluminous is his presence.


Also lending sterling support are dad Jerry Stiller (“Tushy squeeze!”), Milla Jovovich (relishing the chance to do comedy) and David Duchovny as conspiracy theorist and world’s greatest hand model JP Prewitt (“We don’t think the same way as the face and body boys do”). Prewitt explains how models have been responsible for the biggest assassinations in history, including Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth – James Marsden –  was “the original model slash actor”) and JFK. Duchovny’s “You serious? I just, I just told you that a moment ago” was an improvised response to Stiller losing his place and asking “So why male models?” a second time, but perfectly fits Zoolander’s pervading density.


Rounding out the supporting cast are Jon Voight and Vince Vaughn as family members along with early appearances from Alexander Skarsgård as doomed modelling buddy Meekus and Justin Theroux (since a mainstay co-writer of Stiller’s) as Evil DJ, part of the picture’s grand finale as he mixes Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax with Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, while battling Hansel (“They’re breakdance fighting!”).


The as-themselves cameos are copious, but a few deserve singling out. The late great David Bowie is magnificent, so much so he warrants an onscreen title when he arrives (“I may be of assistance?”). He judges Derek and Hansel’s walk-off and looks suitably alarmed when the former has extreme difficulties extracting his underwear at the crucial moment. Gary Shandling also gets kudos for the ironic cuts to his less-than-perfect visage whenever beautiful celebrities are mentioned.


Winona Ryder’s appearance is uncannier than it is funny; she comments how she admires Derek as he “laid low for a while and then a made a comeback” following his disastrous awards experience; Noni was sent into career doldrums following a shoplifting offence three months later. But the highest honours go to none other than cool dude Billy Zane (“Put a cork in it, Zane!”) who rightly returns for the sequel. It wouldn’t be the same without him. The entire Cult of the Zane is built around this landmark appearance.


Stiller doesn’t waste a scene, and, as with the later Tropic Thunder, some of his targets are suitably near the knuckle (the plot revolving as it does around the fashion industry attempting to maintain lax child labour laws in third world countries). If the back-to-his-roots, coal mining interlude doesn’t quite work (“I think I’m getting the black lung, pop”, being the highlight), others that shouldn’t (yet another 2001 parody? Really?) absolutely sing.


Then there are the rightly esteemed classic scenes such as the model of the Derek Zoolander Institute for Kids Who Can’t Read Good (“What is this? A centre for ants?!”), the batty sex scene to the accompaniment of Love to Love You Baby, and the delirious brainwashing sequence (“Obey my dog!”) As these things go, the Derelicte conceit (couture based on homeless chic) is all too feasible (Galliano did something similar a year before), and you wonder how many of the self-infatuated fashion industry bastions cameoing were really in on the joke.


Cinematographer Barry Peterson hasn’t reteamed with Stiller (as a director), but his vibrant visuals are perfectly in synch, as is David Arnold’s score, which ensures the string of familiar tunes is both arresting and flows seamlessly. There are very few virtuoso filmmakers operating in the comedy arena; the Coen Brothers, Edgar Wright and Ben Stiller are pretty much the leading lights. They inherently understand that the best results come from actually working the camera, rather than merely letting the performers get on with it. Basically, Zoolander marked Stiller out one of the great eugooglizers.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm Mary Poppins, y'all.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Most of the time, we’ll settle for a solid, satisfying sequel, even if we’re naturally going to be rooting for a superlative one. Filmmakers are currently so used to invoking the impossible standard of The Empire Strikes Back/The Wrath of Khan, of advancing character and situation, going darker and encountering sacrifice, that expectations are inevitably tempered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is indebted to at least some of those sequel tropes, although it’s arguably no darker than its predecessor, if more invested in character development. Indeed, for a series far more rooted (grooted?) in gags than any other in the Marvel wheelhouse, it’s ironic that its characterisations thus far have been consistently more satisfyingly realised than in any of their other properties.

Perhaps the most significant aspect writer-director James Gunn is clearly struggling with here is how to keep things fresh knowing he’s developed an instantly satisfyin…

Courage is no match for an unfriendly shoe, Countess…

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.1: Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer
(aka The Silver Jug) Season Two of Jeeves and Wooster continues the high standard of the previous year’s last two episodes, appropriately since it takes after its literary precedent; Season One ended with a two-part adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves, which PG Wodehouse followed four years later with The Code of the Woosters. Published in 1938, it was the third full-length outing for Bertie and his genius gentleman’s gentleman, and the first time Plum visited Totleigh Towers, home of imperious nerve specialist Sir Watykn Bassett. If I say “Spode”, and add “Eulalie”, its classic status in the canon will no doubt come flooding back to you.

Sir Watkyn has already graced our screens, of course, in the very first episode, adapting Bertram Wilberforce’s recollection from this very The Code of the Woosters of his policeman’s hat-stealing incident, and for the most part, like the season finale before it, Clive Exton recognises a good thing when he …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I liked animals. And then I discovered I liked killing people even more.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Alien: Covenant (2017)
(SPOILERS) In tandem with the release of increasingly generic-looking promotional material for Alien: Covenant, a curious, almost-rehabilitation of its predecessor’s rocky legacy seemed to occur, as some of its many naysayers were given to observe, “Well, at least Prometheus was trying something different”. It seems Sir Ridders can’t win: damned if he breaks new ground, damned if he charts a familiar course. The result is a compromise, and boy, does Covenant feel burdened by that at times. Still, those worried it would renege on Prometheus can relax in at least one important regard: Covenant is at least as stupid in terms of character motivation. And, for this reviewer, in another respect: I liked it a lot, or rather, I liked a lot of it, despite myself.

Screenwriter John Logan persuaded Scott to follow the path of more trad-Alien antics, so it would be interesting to learn how different things might have been before that course reset (he told Scott “Look, I love…

Jeeves, you really are the specific dream rabbit.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.2: A Plan for Gussie  (aka The Bassetts’ Fancy Dress Ball)
The cow creamer business dispatched, the second part of this The Code of the Woosters adaptation preoccupies itself with further Gussie scrapes, and the continuing machinations of Stiffy. Fortunately, Spode is still about to make things extra unpleasant.

Sir Roderick delivers more of his winning policies (“the Right to be issued with a British bicycle and an honest, British-made umbrella”) and some remarkably plausible-sounding nonsense political soundbites (“Nothing stands between us and victory except our defeat!”, “Tomorrow is a new day; the future lies ahead!”) while Jeeves curtly dismisses Spode trying to tag him as one of the working masses. It’s in Spode’s ability to crush skulls that we’re interested, though, and it looks as if his powers have deserted him at the start.

Jeeves has given Gussie a pep-talk in how to get over his terror of Spode (“We don’t fear those we despise… fill one’s mind with scorn…