Eternal Monkies


“It was the best of times it was the BLURST of times?!? You stupid monkey!” – The Simpsons


 

The gf was recently watching some sports drama thing: The tall, basketball-playing Asian hero eschews the pretty Asian girl in favour of the nerdy, homely Asian girl and finally sits down next to her. Her Asian friends giggle. His Asian friends shake their heads knowingly, irked that he is missing the big game but also happy that he’s finally gonna get some.

“This seems familiar,” I said, “haven’t we seen this before?”
I mentally added: and even then it seemed like it was nicked from Teen Wolf.
“No,” said the gf. “That was the film. This is the TV version.”*

It’s fair to say that I am less than excited about this current trend in television remakes of successful movies; from any country. I heard on the grapevine that next in the Hollywood firing line is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This sounds totally pointless and potentially disastrous to me, especially as no one from the original movie is attached to (or, presumably, remotely interested in) the new version.

I’m quite fond of Michel Gondry’s DIY visual style** and of Charlie Kaufman’s weird blend of comedy, science-fantasy and pseudo-philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a room full of American sitcom writers try to ape it for an extended period of seasons.

Even so, I recently put aside a little of my prejudice by watching a very different philosophical science fiction cash-in, the first season of 12 Monkeys. The opening episode did nothing to convince me that I had made the right decision. It was full of dumbass, tone deaf nods to the film: stolen lines of dialogue, a mental hospital named after the original screenwriters. It was The Walking Dead without the zombies, Heroes without the charm; a shaggy mess, lacking all of the psychological aspects, character development and visual flair that made the original film so intriguing. By the end of the season it had failed to grow a beard, but I admit that there was a small line of stubble poking through, like the ones worn by its cast of post-apocalyptic washouts.

I know it’s difficult enough to write anything, let alone something original; that there’s nothing new under the clichéd sun and all that. Maybe there’s some sour grapes on my part in that some writers are paid just to write Lego and Emoji movies, or to extend other people’s work into small screen bowel movements, while I turn up to a Chinese classroom with a mental folder of rejection letters from the likes of Amazon and the BBC.***

Modern storytelling is all about dressing up the old tales in new clothes, but if the clothes you’re using are charity shop hand-me-downs from another medium, then your script is going to look a little shabby. I enjoyed the first season of Mr. Robot more than I did 12 Monkeys, but even then I would have found the ‘plot twists’ in Elliot Alderson’s life more surprising if I’d never read Fight Club or American Psycho. Equally, 12 Monkeys would have been more suspenseful if I’d never seen Timecop or Pertwee-era Doctor Who (let alone a movie called 12 Monkeys, which it really is only distantly related to).

In the 1970s, Hollywood got an influx of Californian film students: beach bum philosophers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, etc. These were guys who’s movies were styled on the films of the past. A generation later there was an influx of indie film nerds like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, guys who were inspired by the filmmakers of the 70s. The current generation consists of blokes like Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie and Neil Marshall, who all know how to make a decent movie, but are mostly inspired by the video-store-clerks-turned-directors of the 90s. That means we’ve got films that are inspired by films that are inspired by films that were already inspired by other films! With those films being turned into TV shows, it just becomes those old photocopies that have degraded to grey: a copy of a copy of a copy (and yes, I’m aware that’s a line from Fight Club!)

Did you know that LA executives refer to novelists and game designers as ‘content creators’ now? As if everything that’s being written is just an adaptation waiting to be greenlit? Didn’t Marshall McLuhan tell us that the medium is the message? Surely adaptation instantly dilutes or alters that message?

Hollywood long ago became a shrinking stomach so starved of nutrients that it has started devouring itself. There are few enough filmmakers that are inspired by anything other than older filmmakers, but Terry (12 Monkeys) Gilliam and Charlie (Eternal Sunshine) Kaufman are two who try very hard not to be. Maybe that’s what makes their work so appealing to the remake merchants?

I refuse to believe that attention spans are shrinking to the size of emojis. Sure, there are people who want to watch three-second cat videos and get their news in sound bites, but aren’t they the same people who binge-watch entire seasons of Sherlock or Game of Thrones?

Not everyone wants the same crappy fast food that these people are serving up every single week: live-action Disney remakes, TV remakes, Lego remakes!! There must be audiences as hungry for good quality content as I am…


*Apparently, in a seemingly unrelated coincidence, there’s also a tv version of Teen Wolf.

**(even if some of his work really is the hippest of hipster shit)

***The first one stating that my script is so fantastical that the audience wouldn’t have a frame of reference, the second that my script is too derivative of other fantasy stories.

 

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What Lies Beyond Jiangtai?


“Look I’mma spoil this one early on, okay. The answer is not much!”


I was curious, having recently been commuting to and from Wangjing, why so many bodies were stepping off Line 14 at Jiangtai metro station. “Do these people,” I quietly wondered, “know something that I do not?”

I walked two square blocks beyond Jiangtai trying to find out. I passed a handful of office buildings before reaching a dead-end hutong with a huge rubbish tip wedged in one corner. This is central Beijing in ‘rampant shithole’ mode. Forgotten back alleys strewn with stinky filth, full of unappetizing restaurants serving cheap and easily accessible bacterial dysentery.

The big surprise was that Jiangtai station lies near 751 D Park, a communist Santa’s grotto and the back passage (in every sense of the phrase) to 798 Art Zone. A lot of car and tech companies have premises here. More businesses nestle at the Universal Business Park across the road. Does this explain the mad morning and evening rush of the numb, commuting proletariat? Possibly. They certainly don’t seem to be sitting around any of the bars or coffee shops of the art zone itself, but some fan themselves in the factory shadows, resting at plastic tables outside cramped hutong residences. Most of the locals have a smile on their bewildered face as a foreigner strolls past, presumably having taken a misstep on his way to the Zone.

Inside 798, I encountered a couple of my colleagues on an excursion of their own. We exchanged greetings and idioms of the ‘small world’ variety. “Did you come from Wangjing?” One of them asked. I explained that, no, I had actually just wandered in from Dickensian Jiangtai, with no idea how close I already was to a decent pint of beer.

The Power of Derp

 


“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” – Buffalo Springfield


In 1979, Hal Ashby* directed Peter Sellers in a film called Being There. Sellers plays a low IQ gardener called Chance, who has never left the stately home in which he lives and works. All he knows of the outside world is what he’s seen on television while obsessively switching between channels: snippets of Sesame Street and Johnny Carson and Mr. Rogers. When his employer dies, Chance the gardener is forced to confront the real America for the first time. For various reasons, he ends up living with a socialite who takes every one of his dumbass monosyllabic (and televisual inspired) utterances as profound, metaphorical wisdom. Chance’s new friend introduces him to the president of the United States, and the theme becomes ‘just how far can a white retarded person actually get in American politics?’ Bear in mind that this was a far-fetched comedy film at the time, but you only have to look at what’s happened recently in the real world to guess the answer.

There are some people who object to my use, either in conversation or in written form, of the word ‘retarded’. There are other people (slightly less retarded ones) who completely ‘get’ that I use this incendiary word not to mock those with a genuine, medically diagnosed Forest Gump/Rain Man/Malkovich-in-that-Gary-Sinise-movie form of mental handicap. Mental or physical disability is of course nothing to be made fun of.

No. The sort of tards I wish to poke with a stick are the 20-watt energy-savers who voted for Brexit without knowing what an EU was; the half-sharp foreskins who are more concerned about a female Doctor Who than a female prime minister that no one initially voted for; the dull-witted gammon flaps who use tiki torches not for some friendly neighbourhood gathering, but for attending racist protests swaddled in Nazi iconography and then for drying their uncontrollable tears when someone on YouTube points out that they’re a bit of a racist.

I completely understand if the word ‘retard’ upsets you. There are words that upset me, but that’s not your problem is it? I hope that my outright abhorrence at some mayonnaise hued twat waving a swastika and doing the Roman salute here in the troubled 21st century is your problem, and I hope that you’re as angry about it as I am.


“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but believe that I might understand.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Freedom of speech means that people have the right to say something that you disagree with. It does not mean you have to accept what they say without comment. It does not mean that they should be surprised or upset if someone challenges them verbally, physically or (at the very least) on the internet.

Papering over or ignoring the differences between cultures is pointless. I’ve spent enough time in China to know, for example, that Chinese people often think differently from me. I’m not always comfortable with that, but I can accept it. Accepting and celebrating those differences instead of getting angry about them or pretending they don’t exist is surely a sign of sanity, maybe even maturity? But accepting a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Nazi salute on American soil? Are you even remotely serious?

People have the right to be heard. Perhaps they even have the right to be understood. But to be accepted? Fuck no. The idea that we need to accept everyone, whatever their beliefs, is nonsense. Toxic, dangerous nonsense. We should not be accepting or ignoring the current level of open, unabashed pants-shitting ignorance and tongue-lolling intolerance, we should be stamping it out like the rubbish bin fire it is before it’s allowed to become a flat out blazing landfill inferno. These arseholes should be scurrying back into the woodwork, cowering and crying and waiting to be arrested. As philosopher Karl Popper says, a healthy society must (paradoxically) become intolerant of intolerance.

I’m not solipsistic. I’m not a nihilist. I do care about you and yor’n, but if y’all got your fat rube head wedged in the glass jar of stoopid, all I can humbly offer is a ball-peen hammer and the hope that you get the sort of education or medication that will finally help you outwit that turnip.


“To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Words** have exactly as much power and emotion as people ascribe to them. Some atheists get annoyed when people use the word ‘God’ (especially with a capital ‘g’). Certain names for ‘god’ will even get you on the sort of list that it’s pretty hard to extricate yourself from. Equally, some religious people get annoyed when atheists use words like “grow” and “up”. But the theologian Anselm of Canterbury once described his philosophy as “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. If you replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’, then isn’t that pretty much what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the rest of the guys who bat for the other team are still doing?

If your reaction to a complicated universe is to try to make it as simple as possible by following an ideology that chimes with your limited beliefs, more power to you. If you want to put that ideology on a flag, you go right ahead my thick son. But if you’re gonna try to force those beliefs on others and disagree violently with their own beliefs while spastically waving that flag in everyone’s face, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself wearing yer flag rectally (and yes, by ‘rectally’ I mean a literal placing of flagpole betwixt the cheeks of your dumb cracker arse)

A couple of years ago, I blogged on the virtues of anger as an energy to motivate.*** But I wasn’t talking about thick, impotent rage: standing about with your milky white arm extended and your crimson neck knotted, hurling things and shouting ‘sner’ at people who already have reason to believe that you ain’t the sharpest fork at the dinner. I was talking about what the Christians might call ‘righteous’ anger. Channeled, distilled, targeted anger that is borne out of dissatisfaction with the world as it is; burned off in the alchemical and probably blasphemous crucible like lead into gold; forged and alloyed into a sword of awesome. I was talking about what the buddhists might call participating fully in the joyful sorrows and sorrowful joys of the world; understanding that existence is pain; that life is not supposed to be easy and that you, sir, as Mohandas K. Gandhi told us, gotta be the change y’all wanna see! Admittedly, if the change you want to see involves being surrounded by the corpses of your imagined enemies, or only white people emigrating, maybe rethink that shit a little, yeah?

I am someone who loves words and tries to appreciate their power. I try always to choose my words carefully. But they are ‘just’ words. They can put us to sleep or wake us up, like inputting the right code into the software; and if you’re not running a powerful enough computer, then the code becomes meaningless. But I believe there’s a process here: thought/word/deed. Get your thinking clear, and you will almost certainly find the right words. If you’re really lucky (and sufficiently motivated) then hopefully the right actions will follow.


*(possibly the most underrated of film directors in Hollywood’s long and checkered history)

**(including the word ‘retard’)

*** see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/homesick-or-sick-of-home/

Schmucks With Underwoods


“You do have copies of all this, right?”


The sea air of Dalian has done me good, but I wish the persistent downpours and thunderstorms would clear the gritty air here in the Jing. As it is, it’s just a bit of a grey hellhole right now. Even so, I set off under the clouds to say goodbye to a colleague that I’ve known all too briefly, someone who is soon to swap Beijing for St. Petersburg. We are both ‘frustrated writers’, so we figured that the most appropriate place to meet was a dingy coffee shop. It got our heads out of the rain and smog at least.

At the same time, my director friend back in England shared the rough-cut and a poster mock-up of the short horror film we wrote. Encouraging stuff!

It all made me pull the metaphorical digit from the metaphorical orifice and start archiving and organizing some old writing, something that yet another friend (soon to swap Kazakhstan for Egypt) has been nagging me to do since he saw me burning some old screenplays on a Northampton rooftop (see above quote!) It’s a more monumental task than I had hoped, scouring hard drives and iPads and email accounts for needle-like nuggets of corn in the giant haystack of absolute effluent that is the metaphor for my writing.

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My now-ex-colleague but still brother-at-arms left me with a stack of horror movies and science fiction episodes, knowing full well the struggle of finding anything to watch on China’s anemic imitation of Netflix. I have already devoured David Cronenberg’s pervert’s choice classics Videodrome and Naked Lunch (his hallucinatory palimpsest of William Burroughs’s great novel). The film version has its flaws,* but I dug all of the different machinery; the tools of the trade coming to life, eating each other, shape shifting; the idea that a writer works better with certain instruments than others. (I must admit, the typewriter that morphed into a weird dick-arse creature and slithered off into the night was probably my least favourite).

I also liked the scene where the guy’s buddies turned up and magically got his book published for him. It reminded me of a scene that I watched the other day in Spike Jonze’s Her, where the main character’s girlfriend edited all of his writing together into a coherent piece that gave the publisher a boner. It’s one of the reasons I finally decided to organize some of my own work: because that’s not gonna happen!! There is no Ginsberg or AI operating system that’s going to pull all my old incoherent writing together and tell me how great I am. Shit’s up to me.

I’m not actively looking to publish or produce anything right now, just gather it all together and take stock. See where I am. And see if I’m still a writer.


*(too many silly accents in Interzone. And old Robocop is a right bloody mumbler, isn’t he?)

Selfies By the Sea


“Wtf is that chicken looking at?”
“He’s staring at you because he can sense you are a foreigner.”


The gf and I rode the bullet train to Dalian, a seaport city in Liaoning province. We took pot noodles and sausages with us, and tried our best not to buy any wildly inflated thing on the train. When I wasn’t distracted by the stunning Chinese scenery (which was not often), I read a magazine and did a little writing.

As we left the Jing, one of the old green sleeper trains was chugging into the station from Qiqihaer, Mongolia, a two day journey that made our own six hour hop seem like peanuts. The travelling was effortless, but buying the tickets and navigating Dalian would have been damned near impossible for me without a Chinese-speaking companion.

Our first mistake was checking into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Whereas the centre of Beijing is easily accessible from Fangshan or Tongzhou, Dalian only has two metro lines: the Dog Arse Line and the Cat Shit Line. We relied on a taxi for the first night, before moving somewhere closer to downtown for the remainder of our stay.

After that it was plain sailing: strolls along the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf, cold drinks in the sun at Binhai Road, way too much Scezhuan food near the hotel. We met up with an old University friend of the gf’s for BBQ one night. She spoke about as much English as I speak Chinese but my people spoke to her people and we all had a lovely time (and a wonderful meal, as usual).

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No trip to Dalian is complete without popping into both the Forest Zoo (rated AAAA) and Tiger Ocean Park (rated AAAAA), but our second mistake was trying to cram both into the same day. My feelings about zoos and aquariums are complicated,* and Asian zoos tend to get a bad rep, but I found both of these to be  comparable to the equally well-tended Coex Aquarium in Seoul and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. We saw sea lions being fed and we watched sharks and turtles swimming overhead. Penguins posed for photographs and other birds ran about, as free as… well, birds. We rode the cable car and we drooled over The Castle Hotel (¥3000 a night), both of which reminded me of childhood favourite Where Eagles Dare (because relating actual experiences I have to movies I grew up with is something of a hobby of mine, as you must know by now).

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We don’t have a telly at home, so it was novel to see a little international news (in English) at our more modestly priced hotel, including coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I downloaded a film for the return journey: Sick of Ben Stiller comedies and underwhelming horror, I chose Spike Jonze’s surprisingly touching Oscar tale of a charming pervert waking up with a boner for his silky-voiced computer. It was partially shot in Shanghai: somewhere that’s still on the very-slowly-shrinking list of Chinese cities to visit.


* some of them summed up here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/a-zed-two-noughts/

It’s Hard to Believe


“I have a dog with two noses.”
“How does it smell?”
“Twice.”
“Uh… What?”


When I was in Vancouver* I watched some of last year’s X Files. On the plane back from Bangkok, trapped in a tin box with absolutely nothing to do, I watched a couple more. I’ve been haunted by them ever since: not because they were eerily effective at sending a nostalgic chill down my spine, but because I found almost all of them (including one that was genuinely about a Kiwi man-lizard) to be absolute crap.

Even the horrors of these 2016 X Files did not adequately prepare me for the time-warp to Year of the Cash-In, because I have also seen the feature-length movie X Files 2 (aka I Want to Believe), an utterly bizarre ‘standalone thriller’ set a few years after the original run, intended to cap ten years of running about in the dark searching for truth and finding absolutely fuck all.

Do you ever get that feeling with some films (The Fountain for example? or Tideland?) where they are so weird that you kind of hate them the first time, but then they lodge in your mind and won’t go away until you watch them again. This time, on second viewing, you see more than you saw the first time? Suddenly you get it? The film was just a little smarter than you are, and you needed to give it time to grow on you? I Want to Believe is not one of those movies.

I know. I know because I saw it twice. I watched it and then, a few weeks later, after that flight from Bangkok, I watched it again. Firstly, to make sure it actually exists. Secondly, to see if I had misjudged it. I intentionally watched the movie twice to see if I had misjudged a film that has David Duchovny nearly lose an acting competition with a two-headed dog. Sometimes, I question the paths taken by my own neurons.

You may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of my summertime (and my life in general) sitting about watching movies; and then way too much time thinking about those movies. As a kid, I always liked The X Files. I remember my sibling throwing a hissy fit when the first film came out because I got to watch it on the big screen and they didn’t (it was rated 15). To me though, Mulder and Scully died in Antarctica (or Whistler, BC at least). That show never made it into the 21st Century for me. Everything after the first film is filler. By season 7 or so, I had well and truly given up.

Even so, I watched X Files 2. Twice.

Have you seen I Want to Believe? It does exist. We can’t ignore that, can we? The faint ‘kwapish, kwapish’ sound that rumbles underneath the soundtrack is the onomatopoeic slap of Anderson and Duchovny counting their retirement cash as a dead horse is flogged beneath them. The end credit sequence has a hip-hop version of the famous theme, played out over Polaroid photos of a bunch of people having a great time making this film, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not one iota of their joy has translated to the screen. One Polaroid shows a two-headed dog.


“I may not go down in history, but I will go down on your sister.” – David Duchovny


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And so Mulder, languishing under the Bush administration, has put away the shirt and tie. He sits shiftily in a Unabomber shack with a Moroccan shepherd’s beard and is surprised, for some reason, that he’s currently under suspicion by the FBI. Scully has given up on life and begun a bizarre sideline in experimental brain surgery on half-sharp children. Skinner sits peacefully behind a desk until his two craggy-faced ex-agents finally think up yet another ingenious way to piss him off near the end of the movie.

I was not disappointed when I lied my fourteen year old arse past the Virgin Cinema security all those years ago. I thought, and still think, that the original X Files movie from 1998 is quite good. As a TV-show-turned-cinematic-spectacle it is no Fire Walk With Me, but it’s no Charlie’s Angels either. Nor (like those endless, nonsensical Star Trek movies) is it just a very long TV episode. It’s a story that you can watch (and probably enjoy) without any knowledge of the series. It’s got Cronenberg body horror, Ridley Scott cinematography and James Cameron effects (the aliens are even designed by the guys from Aliens). It’s quite well acted. There are no (count em: zero) two-headed dogs in it.

Ten years on from the first movie, the sequel that nobody wanted is almost its opposite. The first one was a summer blockbuster: pre-credits teaser with cavemen fighting off an alien menace; exploding cars and buildings; mysterious mentors leading to globetrotting adventure; secret base full of baddies that explodes at the end. This one is a dead-of-winter ‘standalone’ horror flick. The pre-credits see Billy Connolly* dropping to his knees in poorly displayed anguish. Nothing explodes. Nothing even happens.

This is probably because creator Chris Carter didn’t try to direct the first one himself. X Files 2: I Want to Believe is what happens when he does, like some loveable but batshit crazy uncle who really wants to do something stupid and finally, after ten years of nagging, is allowed to do so.

I’m pretty much a paid up fan of the series. I have an X Files t-shirt. I fairly actively want to believe. But, for a ‘standalone’ (as the publicity material keeps reminding us) fireside tale, this one is almost completely impenetrable to people who haven’t seen the later seasons of the show. (For example, I had no idea that, spoilers, Mulder and Scully were boning each other and that they have a son together. I thought they died in Antarctica.)

This film is a truly unfortunate sign of our remake/sequel/franchise/reboot/cash/cash times. This is terrifying nostalgia unbound. It’s full to the brim with Canadian character actors who were on the TV show back in the day, many of them putting on Russian accents that convince no one. Even poor Callum Keith Rennie, not so fresh from playing Duchovny’s drinking and snorting buddy in Californication, is in it.

Worse than a long TV episode, this is fished-from-the-DVD-bargain-bin-with-Steven-Seagal-and-EndofDays stuff. This is a $30 million movie that looks like a $1 million movie. David Fincher and Stephen King done less than half as well, rated PG-13. It certainly pressure tests to the very max my theory that I respect anyone who directs a feature film, any feature film.

Look, there’s no getting round it, okay? This movie is shit. It’s sad, sad shit and your childhood as you know it is gone. It died in Antarctica, and the people who tried to resurrect it ought to be ashamed of their damned fool selves. Seriously, Crank 2 is not only a better sequel, but a better piece of cinema than this. I’m a man of few regrets but I would happily pay money to a Kickstarter campaign that aimed to build a time machine that could achieve nothing but giving me my four hours back. I would undergo a Lacuna style procedure that would expunge this film from my very memory.

And yet… and yet… I find myself absolutely fascinated, almost awed, by this absolute car crash of a piece of crap. Did this ever feel like a good idea***? Did these filmmakers, like that modern Prometheus Dr. Victor Frankenstein (an obvious inspiration for this decapitated and dismembered bloody mess), even stop to question what they were thinking? I don’t fear the aliens and the unknown, I fear the probability that they actually did, and that the answer is just “dollars.”


*(birthplace of The X Files!)

**who’s acting is set to flat out dolls-eyed ennui the whole time, playing a part written especially for him (which I imagine was a bit like being handed a brightly wrapped gift and opening a shit-in-the-box that he was too polite to flush away).

*** “And here’s the gag, David. It’s got…”
“Ah, one more than usual! Well I like that, Chris. Kinda mythic. A little Freudian. Very subtle.”
“I know, right?”
“Did you see the movie that I directed?”
“Yeah. Lolz.”
“Lolz.”

A Touch of Ben (The Retreads)

INTRODUCTION

A few short weeks ago, I didn’t even know (or care) that Ben ‘The Stiller’ Stiller had ever directed a movie. That all changed when I was fortunate enough to discover the first three films helmed by this titan of Hollywood comedy:

(see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/banned-in-malaysia/)

After watching his first three mini-epics, I truly dared to believe that my brush with comedy greatness had reached its end, accepting the fact that Chinese censorship laws almost certainly prevented me from watching any further directorial efforts by The Stiller.

I was wrong. The gods of comedic cinema were smiling upon me. Buried somewhere on YouKu, China’s answer to a film streaming question that nobody asked, I dug up a second triumvirate of films from Mr. Benjamin Edward Meara Stiller.

I think it was the screenwriter Robert Towne who said that the definition of a movie classic should be ‘a film endlessly rewatchable with joy’. Although I’ve only seen his movies once, I would argue that The Stiller has never directed one of these. I would probably argue that he hasn’t even appeared in one, with the possible exception of… No, I got nothing really*.

Still, I remain (for reasons not entirely clear even to myself) impressed with this man’s directorial output and undeniable gift of at least semi-regular motion picture hilarity.

I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have another mostly spoiler free chat, this time focusing on his later work…

TROPIC THUNDER

“The worst thing about America isn’t that they’ll bomb your country. The worst thing is that they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how bombing your country made their soldiers feel really sad.”

– Frankie Boyle

I really, really wanted to like this movie. It’s a genuinely brilliant idea – a satire of pretentious Hollywood in general and of overblown, melodramatic American war movies in particular – but the fact is that the finished film is almost total arse. It’s literally the worst film ever directed by Ben Stiller. One critic described it as “an assault in the guise of a comedy… like getting mugged by a clown.” That’s pretty accurate, and for all the wrong reasons too.

The fact that I found it funnier and more enjoyable towards the end either says that it’s poorly written and constructed in the beginning and middle, or that by then I had been helplessly desensitized to its scattershot lameness. It has a good cast, most of whom just aren’t very funny in it. Tom Cruise just isn’t very funny in anything, is he?

There are one-liners and dialogue exchanges that approach greatness, but none of the scenes or performances actually do (let alone the movie itself). Look past the blackface and the 2-dimensional non-American characters (both by now trademarks of The Stiller), and you can tell just how hard these people are trying to make a comedy epic,** but it ends up as a limp version of the sort of Academy Award nominated mess that it’s supposed to be poking with a slapstick. The fact that it was actually Academy Award nominated just shows how little Hollywood seems to appreciate irony.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

“Stop Dreaming. Start Living.” -eHarmony

This has all the Stiller thumbprints: pretty cinematography, jokes at the expense of non-American people, some scenes that go on and on seemingly forever without getting any funnier. But where Tropic Thunder was almost certainly his least impressive film, this was easily his most charming. It even manages to prove that Sean Penn almost has some semblance of a sense of humour.

The movie is a very loose remake of a film from the 1940s, which in turn was loosely adapted from an old American short story. I’ve never read it. But I’m not, on the whole, in love with the idea of Hollywood vanity projects based on satirical literature (there is not a pole long enough betwixt me and Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels. Not gonna happen.)

This retooled version of Walter Mitty, from the screenwriter who brought you OCD nightmare The Pursuit of HappYness and that film where people keep pelting Nicolas Cage with fast food, is pretty much a two hour advert for the dating website eHarmony.

The Stiller plays the eponymous Walter, a daydreamy, shagged out, white collar dude (the kind of man who would probably describe himself on eHarmony as ‘mature looking’) who deals with the photo negatives at Life Magazine.

The basic plot, if you are interested: Dude’s job is on the line when he loses the intended cover photo provided by a badass photojournalist. Walter suffers from what looks to me less like daydreams and more like schizophrenia but to The Stiller it’s all the same: a bunch of hallucinogenic sight gags that go on a little too long. Instead of using this psychotic superpower to mow friends and colleagues down with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, Walter digs into his 16-year-old savings account and goes skateboarding in Iceland for some reason.

Look, it could be worse. It could have been Owen Wilson.

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“I had no idea there were so many subtleties involved. Please accept my apologies.” -Penelope Cruz

Just as I found Tropic Thunder nowhere near as good as a lot of people seemed to think, I found this movie nowhere near as bad. I don’t know why.

I am not in the habit of carelessly utilizing the phrase ‘exactly a work of absolute genius’, but Zoolander 2 is definitely not exactly a work of absolute genius. It is good, though. And it is funny, possibly funnier than the first Zoolander (except for a few wtf scenes, including appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch and then Neil DeGrasse Tyson that just made me feel embarrassed for everyone involved).

Fifteen years after Derek Zoolander’s first mad and reasonably amusing adventures, this is the same mad and reasonably amusing little world as the original. The Stiller plays a now retired/reclusive/bearded hermit, eventually coaxed out of retirement by Billy Zane (yes, that’s right) and embroiled in a second evil conspiracy to bump off celebrities. This time support comes not just from Owen Wilson (conspicuously absent from The Stiller’s previous couple of ventures) but in the slinky form of Penelope Cruz’s swimsuit model turned INTERPOL ‘fashion police’ agent.

The film has celebrities lining up in droves and (sometimes literally) waiting to be executed. The quality of performances varies even more than the first one, but the storytelling, the mise en scène and the je nes c’est quoi are all top notch once again.

I already told you I don’t know why I liked this film, but I watched it with headphones and the gf kept asking if I was okay because she was concerned someone might be tickling a pig.

CONCLUSION

1994 was a long time ago. The fresh faced yuppie who looked so disappointed when Winona Rider broke his Dr. Zaius has matured into a middle-aged Hollywood badass. The Stiller is not always adept at splitting my cynical and life-hardened sides, but I have a lot of respect for anyone with the balls to direct a film, let alone someone who can direct this successfully. The man may not be on par with the kind of left-field comedy directors I usually like, but that’s okay. Dude probably has a lot more bank, and his films are almost always enjoyable enough.

Searching for a coherent theme in the later, less subtle work of Ben Stiller, I think it’s that all of his lead characters are asking the big question:

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Whether or not this is a reflection of the director’s own mental state, I cannot of course answer, but I am glad that I can now count myself among an elite few who were brave enough to intentionally watch every feature film directed by the erstwhile star of The Ben Stiller Show. The first three were mostly enjoyable. The next three were mostly watchable. Laughter was snorted. Wails of frustration were at time exuded. No tears of joy nor laughter were shed. But I watched them. How many of you are brave enough to do the same?

HEALTH WARNING:

I did not watch all of these movies in one day. I did not even watch them one after the other over consecutive days. Should you choose to do so please, for the love of God, consult a doctor or clinical psychologist. I don’t think even Ben Stiller would do that.


*(Royal Tenenbaums, maybe??)

**(and Matthew McConaughey in particular really is trying)