Friday, May 27, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: ZOOLANDER 2 (2016); RISEN (2016); and THE PROGRAM (2016)

(US - 2016)

You could probably count the number of good comedy sequels on one hand and it should come as no surprise that ZOOLANDER 2 wouldn't be one of them. Arriving 15 long years after the original was a minor hit on its way to becoming a cult movie on DVD and cable, ZOOLANDER 2 has nothing new to offer except more noise and more cameos, feeling the need to repeat or reference nearly every gag from the first film before its threadbare plot kicks into gear. In the years since the first film, the world's top male supermodel and total idiot Derek Zoolander (director and co-writer Ben Stiller) is a hermit (or, as he calls it, "a hermit crab") in isolation following the death of his wife (Stiller's wife Christine Taylor) in a freak accident involving the giant, book-shaped Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good falling on her because Zoolander had the building made from the same materials as books (that joke lands even worse in the movie than it does in synopsis form). After having his son Derek Jr taken away from him when a viral video leaks of Zoolander melting down as he tries to cook spaghetti in a toaster ("How did Mom make make the noodles soft?" he screams), Zoolander retreated from the world much like LITTLE FOCKERS' Ben Stiller has retreated from comedy. Unfortunately for everyone, Zoolander and sidekick Hansel (Owen Wilson) are pulled back onto the runway by hipster designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), who needs them for the "Old and Lame" (Zoolander pronounces it "Laa-may") part of his Rome show. Zoolander and Hansel are soon drawn into an investigation by Interpol agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz, who followed this triumph with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY), which leads to the return of evil fashion megalomaniac Mugatu (Will Ferrell, who doesn't even appear until an hour in) and his plot to find and kidnap Derek Jr (Cyrus Arnold), who carries the Fountain of Youth bloodline of "Steve," humanity's first fashion model, booted out of the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and subject him to a "ritual fattening" to make him an embarrassment to the Zoolander name.

It's really difficult to describe how astonishingly unfunny ZOOLANDER 2 is. The only reasonably big laugh comes from one line Mugatu has as he holds a black mass over a lava pit to sacrifice Derek Jr (dubbed "the fat little Chosen One") so the world's top fashion names--Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Mark Jacobs, and Alexander Wang appear as themselves--can bathe in his blood Bathory-style: "Check out Tommy Hilfiger's spring line, brought to you by white privilege!" Elsewhere, nothing works. Stiller and his co-writers (including co-star Justin Theroux) really overestimated the level of sentiment we feel for these characters. Was anyone demanding a ZOOLANDER sequel? With nothing new to add, Stiller's Hail Mary is to pile on endless cameos, where the recognition of a famous person is, in and of itself, supposed to be funny. It's like a long SNL skit or Jimmy Fallon bit where someone just unexpectedly pops up and we're supposed to be entertained by the mere sight of a celebrity. Some of them play characters (Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen have minor roles and Benedict Cumberbatch is an androgynously hermaphroditic supermodel named "All") or appear as distorted versions of themselves (Kiefer Sutherland plays himself as part of Hansel's dozen-person orgy collective; Sting plays Sting as an Obi-Wan Kenobi of the fashion world, who only speaks in Police or solo Sting-related song lyrics), but most just appear and that's supposed to be the joke: Justin Bieber, Billy Zane, Susan Boyle, Willie Nelson, Joe Jonas, Olivia Munn, Skrillex, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Susan Sarandon, Christina Hendricks, M.C. Hammer, John Malkovich, Kate Moss, A$AP Rocky, and others. It also might set the record for cameos by TV news figures, including but not limited to Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, Joe Scarborough, Soledad O'Brien, Don Lemon, Matt Lauer, Dan Abrams, and, my God...et tu, Jim Lehrer? You get to see Tommy Hilfiger quipping "Tommy likey" as he watches Valentina and Mugatu henchwoman Katinka (Milla Jovovich) wrestling in a 69 position, and there's rimshot-worthy groaners like Derek going undercover and saying "Every bathhouse I've ever worked at had a rear entrance." ZOOLANDER 2 is appallingly bad. It's ANCHORMAN 2 bad and it's Adam Sandler lazy. It's Stiller and a bunch of his friends fucking around on Paramount's dime. Movies like this are a special kind of bad. It would be one thing if ZOOLANDER 2 tried and failed, but all it does is show up because it doesn't come from a place of inspiration. ZOOLANDER did. ANCHORMAN did. But their sequels came from a far more cynical place. No effort was put forth because none was necessary. And because the movie was shot at the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Rome, it seems that the primary motivation was paid vacations all around. No one involved in this thing gives the slightest shit about it. You shouldn't either. (Unrated, 102 mins)

(US - 2016)

One of the few offerings from the faithsploitation scene to stifle the preaching and attempt to reach out to secular audiences, RISEN treats the days following Christ's crucifixion as though it's LAW & ORDER: RESURRECTION. This isn't an original approach--Damiano Damiani's 1987 film THE INQUIRY starred Keith Carradine as a Roman soldier sent by Pontius Pilate (Harvey Keitel) to investigate a missing persons case where the missing person happens to be Jesus. THE INQUIRY was remade in 2006 as THE FINAL INQUIRY, an Italian film picked up for the US by Fox Faith and starring F. Murray Abraham, Max Von Sydow, and Dolph Lundgren. RISEN is more or less another de facto remake of THE INQUIRY, with cynical, agnostic tribune and war hero Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) assigned by Pilate (Peter Firth) to find the missing body of the prophet Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), who vanished from his sealed tomb three days after being crucified. Clavius and Lucius (HARRY POTTER's Tom Felton), the rookie tribune assigned to accompany him, tear Jerusalem apart searching for Yeshua's missing apostles and other accomplices (including Mary Magdelene, played by Maria Botto), until Clavius goes rogue and accompanies the remaining eleven apostles on a journey to meet the resurrected Yeshua. Of course, the film is ultimately all about making Clavius a believer, but director/co-writer Kevin Reynolds has plenty of real movies on his resume (ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, WATERWORLD, 187, and the acclaimed History Channel miniseries HATFIELDS & MCCOYS) to not let the sermonizing take precedence over the story. Shot on Spanish and Maltese locations, RISEN looks great, though some discount-rate CGI is an occasional distraction, most notably a boat ride that seems tragically reminiscent of the greenscreen work in IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. The biggest problem is the film's ponderous pacing and a one-note performance by Fiennes, whose voice barely rises above a mumble until he finally meets Yeshua, who's very charismatically played by veteran character actor Cliff Curtis. Fiennes (when's the last time you went to see a Joseph Fiennes movie?) just doesn't have the screen presence to carry this, and it really seems like he got the job because his asking price was the most Sony was willing to spend for their faith-based Affirm Films division. The sincere RISEN deserves some credit for being the one of the least sanctimonious examples of faithsploitation and it gets quite good once Curtis' Yeshua finally shows up, but it just misses the mark. (PG-13, 108 mins)

(France/UK - 2016)

Not to be confused with the 1993 James Caan college football drama that inspired dumb teenagers to lie in the middle of the road and get killed, THE PROGRAM is a well-acted but choppy chronicle of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Based on the book Seven Deadly Sins by Sunday Times sports reporter David Walsh (played here by Chris O'Dowd) and scripted by frequent Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge (SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING), THE PROGRAM too frequently feels like an adaptation of a Wikipedia page, glossing over details and assuming you know enough to fill in the blanks (shot of Armstrong getting married, wife never seen again). It also can't decide whether to focus on Walsh, Armstrong (a terrific performance by Ben Foster), or Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Landis, a cyclist on Armstrong's team, enters the story midway through and quickly grows embittered over the way Armstrong gets all the glory, especially when trainer and chief Armstrong enabler Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) has to sell a number of the team's bikes to pay for everyone's performance-enhancing drugs. They're all part of the "program" designed by dubiously sketchy Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), and the film details all the ways Ferrari and Bruyneel pump the cyclists full of drugs and the elaborate methods employed to cheat mandatory drug testing. THE PROGRAM opens like a standard Armstrong biopic, then shifts to Walsh as he grows incredulous of Armstrong's seemingly superhuman abilities after a grueling battle with cancer. But it's the Landis subplot that more or less dominates the last third, with the perennially-sidelined cyclist busted in a random urine test while Armstrong smugly beats the system and uses his celebrity and his "cancer shield" to render himself untouchable.

For a while, it seems like Hodge and director Stephen Frears (once a great filmmaker, now a comfortably jobbing journeyman) might go in an ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN/SHATTERED GLASS/SPOTLIGHT direction as Walsh tries to expose the culture of doping, fighting his editors at the paper and everyone else seeking to protect Armstrong's heroic image, getting doors slammed in his face and getting the cold shoulder from his colleagues when Bruyneel bullies them and threatens to cut their access if they continue to associate with Walsh. But Hodge and Frears introduce him as basically a co-lead character, then almost instantly sideline him for much of the film. There's too much ground to cover, and it probably would've worked better as an HBO or FX miniseries, where characters and conflicts would've had time to build and be fleshed-out in a more organic way. The film's flaws don't negate the excellent work of Foster, who doesn't really look a lot like Armstrong (though he gets some help from minimal makeup and trimmed eyebrows), but disappears into the character to such an extent that he becomes Armstrong by the end, uncannily nailing his body language and speech patterns. THE PROGRAM doesn't shy away from presenting Armstrong as little else than an egomaniacal, narcissistic sociopath, but it also seems too rushed and lets the committed actors down (Dustin Hoffman also turns up for a couple of scenes as bridge champion and investor Bob Hamann, though he seems to have wandered in from another movie). Shot in 2013 and unreleased until early 2016, THE PROGRAM would seem like a talked-about, awards-season gimme but debuted on DirecTV before hitting VOD and a small handful of theaters, ensuring that Foster's award-worthy performance will be lost in an utterly average movie nobody's going to see. (R, 104 mins)

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