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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Director Ben Stiller gets serious with Escape at Dannemora, a Showtime series based upon the real 2015 escape of two dangerous convicts from prison in upstate New York.

Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano are perfect as Richard Matt and David Sweat, two nutballs who get prison employee Tilly Mitchell (a terrific Patricia Arquette) to help them break out, therefore initiating a mammoth manhunt—the results of which I won’t give away here.

Matt, Sweat and Mitchell formed a very unconventional love triangle that goes to some pretty strange places. (As of this writing, four of the seven episodes have aired.)

So far, the show is pretty damned good. Stiller can’t resist the temptation to be funny on occasion, but this show is proof he can put together a great drama, too. Del Toro and Dano are equally good, each getting a chance to explore their dark sides. (No surprise: Del Toro’s dark side is a little goofier.) The series garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Limited Series and Best Performance By an Actress in a Limited Series for Arquette.

Thankfully, I’ve forgotten how this story actually turns out, so I will watch until the end and see who lives and who dies. As prison dramas go, this one is a keeper—and proof that Stiller has another whole side of his career that he can explore.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The Bluths are back together again—with more simultaneous screen time than in Season 4—in the latest Arrested Development reunion on Netflix.

The plotting of this season involves a little too much crazy stuff regarding Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli) and the shared girlfriend (Isla Fisher) of Michael (Jason Bateman) and George Michael (Michael Cera), making things a bit haphazard. That doesn’t stop it from being very funny.

There’s a lot of weirdness at play. Buster (Tony Hale) does jail time (during which he touches a mouse!), while Tobias (David Cross) obsesses with impersonating everybody in the family. Cross remains the funniest guy on this show; he goes full-blown insane this season. Gob (Will Arnett) is dealing with feelings for fellow magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), so he makes a visit to a Closet Conversion facility (which is not what he thinks). Maeby (Alia Shawkat), for reasons I won’t explain, winds up brilliantly impersonating an old Jewish woman in a retirement community.

Even it is a bit frantic, Arrested Development remains one of the funniest shows on TV. (Who knew Henry Winkler was going to be so funny when he grew up?) When it slows down for stuff like a barbecue at Ron Howard’s house (including cameos by Bryce Dallas Howard and the rest of the Howard family), it’s as funny as it ever was.

Netflix currently has eight episodes streaming now, with eight more coming later this year.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Noah Baumbach delivers his best movie yet with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), his latest story of family dysfunction—which serves as yet another reminder that Adam Sandler can be a knockout actor when he puts his mind to it.

Sandler plays Danny, older brother to Matthew (Ben Stiller), father to Eliza (Grace Van Patten) and son of Harold (Dustin Hoffman). Danny is going through hard times, separating from his wife as Eliza prepares for college. His only option is to live with his dad and stepmom (Emma Thompson), a move that drudges up a lot of past difficulties.

When Matthew comes to town—looking to sell his parents’ house, much to the chagrin of Danny—tensions grow. Yet despite the tension, there’s a hilarious way in which this family communicates. Even when things get bad, their warmth and desire for better times with each other shine through.

While Sandler gets some good laughs (especially when he’s allowed to rage, Sandler-style), quieter moments put him in legitimate contention for an Oscar. As for frequent Baumbach collaborator Stiller, this happens to be his best dramatic performance as well. (A public speaking meltdown by Matthew constitutes the most impressive moment in the film.) Hoffman, who has played the father of both Sandler and Stiller before (Sandler in The Cobbler, and Stiller in the Focker movies), hasn’t had a chance to shine like this in a long while. Like Gene Hackman as the unreliable patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums, he owns his every scene.

This is one of the year’s funniest—and best acted—movies, and a fabulous reunion for Stiller and Sandler, more than 20 years after they shared the screen in Happy Gilmore.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

A bad film sticks in the craw more when it’s made by somebody capable of genius.

Ben Stiller is one of the great modern-day comedic actors. He started, more or less, with The Ben Stiller Show, a project that basically gave birth to Mr. Show and Tenacious D. The man is directly or indirectly responsible for about 78 percent of the laughter that has come out of my face over the last 24 years. As a director, he started with a clunker (Reality Bites), but followed it up with an underrated gem, The Cable Guy. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is much better than it gets credit for, and Tropic Thunder is a bad-taste masterpiece.

Of all the comic creations Stiller has come up with and directed, Zoolander is the most bothersome. It’s a skit that wasn’t funny in the first place—stretched into a feature that feels flat and in-jokey. Well, Stiller has returned for another shot of unneeded male-model parody with Zoolander 2—and it’s far and away the worst thing he’s ever done. It’s so bad that it’s a formidable if early contender for 2016’s worst film. It represents Stiller at his most lost and foundering.

It’s 15 years after the events of the 2001 original, and Derek Zoolander is living a hermit’s life in remote New Jersey, mourning the loss of his wife (Christine Taylor) after the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too collapsed and crushed her to death.

Note to Stiller: Zoolander came out just a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, and will be forever associated with that event in the minds of many, because the Twin Towers had to be digitally removed from the film. Is it really a funny idea to have your wife’s character killed in a New York City building collapse that takes place in 2001? I didn’t laugh, so I’ve answered my own question.

Meanwhile, Hansel (Owen Wilson) is living a secluded life in the “deserts of Malibu” with his orgy family (including a very sensitive Kiefer Sutherland). He’s visited by a message-delivering Billy Zane and goes on a quest to find Derek. Unfortunately, he succeeds in finding him, and a boring comic duo gets another chapter.

A search for Derek’s son and some other nonsense leads them to Rome and an eventual showdown with fashion bad guy, Mugatu (Will Ferrell). The Mugatu subplot feels tacked on, as if they only had Ferrell for a week. Ferrell is given close to nothing to work with, forcing him to mug for his paycheck.

At times, the film feels like a total rip-off of Austin Powers, with Zoolander and Hansel becoming spies; Penélope Cruz stepping in as the tightly clad female sidekick; and a daddy-issues subplot involving Zoolander’s long-lost son. Mugatu is something of a sad riff on Dr. Evil.

The first half-hour of the movie is actually less than terrible. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as a hauntingly androgynous model called All who has married himself, and Derek’s comeback when somebody calls him a narcissist is the best line in the movie. So … I laughed twice.

There are too many cameos to count, many of them by fashion icons most of us could not care less about. When a big moment in your movie hinges upon the dramatic talents of Tommy Hilfiger, you’ve got a problem. Did I mention the great Kristen Wiig is in the movie, too? No, I didn’t—because her bizarre character is something that needs to be forgotten.

Stiller got lazy and perhaps a little distracted with Zoolander 2. He needs to get his edge back after this tremendous miscue.

Zoolander 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ben Stiller re-teams with director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) for While We’re Young, a very funny movie about artistic integrity and learning to grow up.

Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple who are content, but perhaps a little bored. They meet a 20-something couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and find themselves drawn to them and aspects of their “really cool” lifestyle. As it turns out, the Stiller and Driver characters are both film documentarians. This leads to initial bonding—but then it leads to big problems.

This is Stiller’s funniest movie since Tropic Thunder, and Watts is every bit as funny (especially when she cuts loose in a hip-hop dance class). Driver and Seyfried are adorable, and a little scary, as the younger couple who still listen to vinyl and watch VHS tapes, because it’s cool and retro.

Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia get laughs as Stiller’s older friends who just had a baby and are worried about the emotional welfare of their two pals.

Baumbach is always amusing, and this is one of his better films.

While We’re Young is now playing at the Camelot Theaters (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

The third time is the charm for the Night at the Museum franchise: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is first good movie in the lot.

The previous chapters lacked soul, laughs and a true sense of adventure. This installment allows Ben Stiller to clown around a little more and drop some better jokes. Having him play a second character—a Neanderthal man—is an inspired touch.

This time out, Larry (Stiller) discovers that the ancient tablet that gives the museum attractions the ability to come alive is deteriorating. He ultimately treks to London to solve the problem, visiting a museum where Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) comes to life.

Stevens is a nice addition; he’s consistently funny and wicked as the crazed knight. His subplot leads to him running onstage during a musical production of Camelot, which provides a pretty hilarious cameo that I won’t give away.

All of the usual characters are back, including Robin Williams, in one of his last roles, as Teddy Roosevelt. Mickey Rooney’s final appearance is also here; he has one twisted scene. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan get a bunch of laughs as the cowboy and the Roman soldier, while the peeing monkey steals a bunch of scenes.

Stiller, director Shawn Levy and the cast finally get it right, and bring the series to what I hope is its conclusion. I never expected to laugh during a Night at the Museum movie—but I found myself giggling often during this one.

Special Features: A director’s commentary, a bunch of featurettes and some deleted and extended scenes make this a pretty packed disc.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The dream world and reality blend beautifully in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest from director/star Ben Stiller.

Stiller uses the short story by James Thurber—about a man prone to elaborate daydreams—as a springboard to something altogether new, and surprisingly intimate. This is essentially a $90 million art film that maintains a nice, indie sensibility to go along with moments of grand spectacle.

Stiller, in one of his best performances, plays the title character, an introverted man who handles photo negatives for Life magazine. After a vivid daydream in which he saves a cat from a building moments before it explodes, he wanders into Life’s lobby—and finds out the magazine will be going online-only. (This actually happened a while back in the real world. Life has been publishing only occasional special issues for years, and doesn’t even exist as its own full website anymore).

In other words, Walter, in the digital age, is quickly becoming an unnecessary entity at his job. To add insult to injury, he’s getting harassed by Ted (a sinisterly funny Adam Scott), the super-douche tasked with transitioning the magazine to its online format. Ted mocks him in front of fellow employees and throws paper clips as Walter daydreams about co-worker Cheryl (a sweetly charming Kristen Wiig). Walter imagines epic, crazily staged battles with Ted, including one in which they blast out of the side of the office building—all while battling over a Stretch Armstrong doll.

Crisis looms when a negative from star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the negative meant for the magazine’s final cover, goes missing. Walter, with help from Cheryl, springs into action on a quest to find the negative; the journey leads him through Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Along the way, he reignites former passions (like skateboarding and hiking)—and those daydreams become more and more unnecessary.

This movie qualifies as a nice love letter to Kristen Wiig, who represents possibly the coolest onscreen love interest on 2013. Her Cheryl has a nice accessibility to go along with her beauty and humor; it’s no wonder Walter has a crush. Stiller and Wiig have genuine chemistry, and Wiig’s performance here has none of her more zany comic tendencies.

Penn is downright incredible in his one scene, and Patton Oswalt shines as an eHarmony consultant who is so friendly that he could only be found in a movie. Shirley MacLaine (who will be at the McCallum Theatre later this month) is mighty convincing as Walter’s mom—no easy feat, considering most of us are acutely aware that Stiller’s mom is Anne Meara.

There’s nothing forced in Stiller’s depiction of Walter, and nothing jarring about the transition as he comes out of his shell. When we find out some of the reasons Walter lapsed into a life of daydreaming rather than dream fulfillment, Walter becomes a complete character rather than the fleeting representation from Thurber’s story.

Stiller’s performance varies between subtle and extremes, with most of those extremes happening in the daydreams. In the quieter moments, this is the sort of well-modulated performance that ranks with his work in The Royal Tenenbaums and Flirting With Disaster. He’s also a pretty good skateboarder; that’s really him riding at quite high speeds down a mountain road in Iceland.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh deserves major kudos for his stunning work here. Also notable is the soundtrack, with a roster of artists like David Bowie, Of Monsters and Men, and Arcade Fire; it truly bolsters the viewing experience.

The message Stiller is delivering is obvious: Many of our daydreams can be just a hop, skip and skateboard away from being realities. With its simple message elegantly and majestically portrayed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of 2013’s best movies.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews