Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Steve Conrad

If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were a food, it would be one of those giant rainbow-swirl lollipops. It's a dazzling amalgamation of colours and you will concentrate on the subtle details of particular shots with the same intensity of a child poring over a Where's Wally? double-page spread. Does this lollipop taste good? I think it does, but I also think I'd have enjoyed it more if it didn't have so many cracks. This particular film reviewer prefers his movies with a cynical edge that confirms his worldview—life is a series of disappointments, with the occasional intervening success. Walter Mitty is not the type of film that echoes such a sentiment. While the eponymous protagonist does persevere through several obstacles, the film is ultimately a sweet one that will have you exiting the cinema with a smile on your face. Most films that veer into saccharine territory have no idea how sentimental they are. They mistake goodbyes in the rain for profundity. Walter Mitty can get sickly sweet at times, but I can forgive this, for the film is inherently tied to notions of escapism. 

The film is based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name. Ben Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a LIFE magazine employee who works in the Negative Assets department. The magazine is planning its final issue and depends on an important photograph taken by Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) which will be used as the cover image. When Walter cannot locate the negative of O'Connell's photograph, he embarks on a global trip to find the photographer himself. What Walter doesn't know is that his journey will uncover a latent lust for life he wasn't even aware he had. The missing negative is not the only thing on Walter's mind. He is infatuated with his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and concocts elaborate daydreams wherein he is her saviour. We get the sense that Cheryl is the only reason Walter makes the effort of turning up to work. However, he is painfully shy and hesitates to initiate contact with her. He'd much prefer to send her a "wink" on eHarmony. Wisely, the film never threatens to devolve into a cheap "Will Walter get the girl?" scenario. Instead, we wonder, "Will Walter get himself? Will he understand what he is capable of and harness that to do something like ask out a woman he likes?"

This is such an unusual film and I beg you to abandon all expectations before you watch it. I was hooked by its beautifully-edited trailer but now I wish I hadn't seen it, as I was left slightly underwhelmed by the film as a whole. The first act surprised me with some grandiose hallucinatory scenes that would seem more at home in an action blockbuster. They are well-executed and show that Stiller understands comic exaggeration. The moment Walter leaves New York and flies to Greenland is the moment I began to lose interest. Walter's conversation with a drunken helicopter pilot is amusing but nowhere near as funny as Bill Murray's encounters with Japanese locals in Lost in Translation. The difference: the drunk pilot felt like he was written into the film specifically to be funny; the people of Tokyo could have been anything. Much of the film's second act feels like an advertisement for Walter Mitty, the human being. It was almost like I was watching Walter Mitty's showreel—an audition tape for a reality TV show on adrenaline junkies. The icy landscapes were a huge shift from the sunlit streets of act one, and I felt very distanced. The cinematography in these scenes is gorgeous, but I seldom felt involved. Perhaps this was intentional to prove that Walter does not need anyone's support (not even the audience's) to reach self-actualisation.

I have no problem with this film being sweet. I do have a problem with how it chooses to be sweet. The honey-coated soundtrack that conveniently arises during "uplifting" scenes is a distraction. We see inspirational words flash up in the background. It's worrying when a film has to literally spell out its messages for an audience. Despite the film's glaring flaws, I was able to suspend my disbelief. As implausible as Walter's journey may be, it springs from an emptiness that most of us can relate to. It speaks to the failure in all of us. We root for Walter because he represents everyone who has ever wanted to escape the trappings of deep ennui. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller's most ambitious film as director to date. I would also say it's his best-directed film. Reality Bites is nice but forgettable. The Cable Guy is weird for the sake of weirdness. Zoolander is cinematic garbage. I found Tropic Thunder very unfunny and boring. Walter Mitty is only sporadically hilarious. Most of its humour is wrung from wry quips. But it is not primarily a comedy. It shines as an adventure film, espousing that we may have to travel miles to summon ideas that are only two neurons apart. I'll say this about Stiller as a director: he knows what looks good, cinematically. He understands how to make an audience feel something. Give him a few more years and he'll produce something really special.

3.5/5 stars.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will be released in Australia on 26 December, 2013. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

November 2013 Film Wrap-Up

Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) = 3.5/5

This one was a disappointment. I love films about people who live sheltered existences, and whom are finally forced to face the outside world. Bad Boy Bubby is my favourite film of this kind. Dogtooth and Rain Man both deal with similar themes. I expected to love Being There because of this subject matter, and also because of Peter Sellers and director Hal Ashby (whose Harold and Maude I quite like). Ultimately, the compelling premise fails to fully blossom. The screenplay is clever and the performances are great across the board, but the film is let down by wearisome pacing. It just drags too much. 

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) = 4.5/5

I can't believe it took me so long to get around to this one. It is an endlessly intriguing work of suspense that has aged terrifically. It features one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes in the history of cinema. 


The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) = 5/5

Regular readers of my blog will be aware of my immense, undying love for this film. I first saw The Exorcist when I was five or six years old. I found a VHS tape in my uncle's room marked "THE EXORCIST". My uncle warned me not to watch it. He said it was the scariest movie he had ever seen. Of course, this only heightened my curiosity and I put the tape in the VCR about a week later. I was confused, but most of all, I was terrified. Since then, I have seen The Exorcist around 10 times, and it has lost none of its evocative power despite countless parodies and attempts at mimicry. A lot of people find this film funny on repeat viewings. I will concede that I do laugh during certain scenes, but at its core, The Exorcist remains the scariest film I have ever seen. I love how the different story arcs overlap. You have a young girl having her body invaded by a demonic force as she enters adolescence. There's her mother, an actress who cries helplessly as she watches her only child devolve into a "thing upstairs". My favourite character is Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who suffers a crisis of faith after losing his mother without getting the chance to say goodbye. If you're yet to see this horror masterpiece, do yourself a favour and take the plunge. 

The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013) = 2/5

Firstly, I should note that I didn't watch this on my own volition. I was at a friend's house and we had a movie night. This movie followed The Exorcist, which is no easy feat. I'll admit that I was very tired when this movie was on, so I didn't fully invest in it. That said, there was very little to admire about this hackneyed attempt at profound social commentary. 

Daydream Nation (Michael Goldbach, 2010) = 3.5/5

This film, about a high school love triangle, was a nice little surprise! It is well-written and entertaining, and the characters are enigmatic. Unfortunately, it does falter at the end. That's a shame...it deserved a better conclusion. 

Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010) = 5/5

Let me tell you about this film. It is a beautiful film. It is a film that every teenager should watch. Oliver Tate is a 15-year-old from Swansea who finds himself infatuated with Jordana Bevan. He tries to sustain a meaningful relationship with her while attempting to save his parents from divorce. Oliver is such an idiosyncratic character, and I see so many elements of him in myself. He peruses the dictionary looking to build his vocabulary. He fantasises about his own funeral and how people would react to his death. He knows Jordana doesn't like romantic venues, so he takes her on a date to one of his favourite industrial estates. Please, please, PLEASE watch this film so we can talk about how delightful and moving it is. It captures the pain, awkwardness and tentative optimism of adolescence as well as any film I've seen. It's playful yet honest, with a brilliant soundtrack by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. 

Celebrity (Woody Allen, 1998) = 3/5

This is easily one of Allen's most boring films. I'm trying to remember what exactly happened in it, but I'm drawing blanks. It features a stellar cast and patches of good dialogue, but an ordinary plot and vapid characters make it tough to penetrate.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) = 3/5

This was a rewatch. By now, you should know that I really don't care for superhero films. I try to view them as action or crime films, but I can't see past the cape. Most of them are based on comic books, and I echo David Cronenberg's sentiments that superhero films are adolescent at their core. I was forced to watch this by a friend, and I didn't care for most of it. Two stars for Ledger's performance; one for the atmosphere. I don't see how I'm meant to enjoy this if I never grew up liking Batman or superheroes in general. 

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964) = 3/5

It saddens me to say that this is the first Hitchcock film I've seen that I haven't liked. It's a well-acted but clunky psychosexual mystery. None of the characters are likeable and the payoff is bizarre. 

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008) = 3.5/5

A quiet film that gets under your skin with its brutally honest depiction of human relationships. It's wonderfully acted (especially by Joaquin Phoenix), and I think it ultimately argues that the heart, by default, will love.

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008) = 4.5/5

Do you know how wonderful it is when you LOVE a film you expect to merely like? Let me tell you...it's fantastic. That was the case with In Bruges. This film is pure entertainment from beginning to end. It's violent without being nasty, and also very funny. Let's not forget those brilliant characters, either.

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) = 3.5/5

It doesn't contain the most absorbing story, but it's still a worthwhile character study about class anxiety and isolation. Beautiful cinematography by László Kovács imbues the film with a rustic naturalism. Jack Nicholson is in great form here.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) = 5/5

One of the most gripping dramas in recent years. A powerful exploration of faith, perspective, truth and responsibility, boosted by powerhouse performances. It's so refreshing to see movies like this one are still being made. It thoroughly deserved its Best Foreign Language Film win at the 2012 Oscars.

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) = 5/5

No, you're not seeing things. I watched this film twice in November. This time, I had the privilege of seeing it on the big screen after a Q&A session with none other than Linda Blair, who of course played Regan in the film. A big thank you to Popcorn Taxi for arranging this once-in-a-lifetime screening! Seeing as I have already given my thoughts on the film earlier in this post, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some interesting things that Blair said during the Q&A session:

1. The Exorcist is a film about good triumphing over evil.

2. The Exorcist is a theological thriller, NOT a horror film.

3. She doesn't get scared watching the film because she was directly involved in its production.

4. Despite starring in the film at a young age, she wasn't disturbed by the things her character said or did because she wasn't raised as a Catholic. That's one of the reasons director William Friedkin chose her for the role.

5. She loves Australia because it's one of the only countries that treats her like a human being and not a monster.

6. Her final piece of advice: "If you can help another human being or an animal, do it. You will one day have the favour returned."

Oh, and I'll just leave this here:

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011) = 3/5

Disappointing considering McCarthy's previous efforts (The Station Agent and The Visitor). Not a bad film, but an unremarkable one. This is a dramedy, but I felt that the drama far outweighed the comedy, which made for an uneven, awkward film.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) = 4/5

It didn't blow me away, but it's a well-directed film noir that features brilliant cinematography and a great score. The climax—a suspenseful chase through Vienna's sewers—is something special.

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) = 3.5/5

A self-indulgent and unoriginal film about compromise. Despite its flaws, the dialogue is endlessly entertaining. Only Woody Allen at this stage of his career could get away with making a film like this. If any other director had made this, I would probably hate it, but it makes sense as a 2009 Woody Allen film. 

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008) = 4.5/5

I'd been meaning to watch this documentary for almost a year. Everyone was saying the same thing about it: "It will make you bawl." I mentally prepared myself before I hit play. An hour and a half later, I was speechless. I felt so many emotions but I had no idea what to do with them. Simply put, Dear Zachary is the saddest film I have ever seen. It also angered me to my core. If you have so much as an ounce of compassion, the film will make you seethe with rage. You will find it almost impossible to believe that so much evil could befall one family. The film is at once a loving gesture to a friend and those who cared for him, and a condemnation of an inept justice system. Do not watch any trailers or read any online comments about this film before you watch it. Go in blind. If you know the truth beforehand, the film will fail to land its visceral blow.

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) = 3/5

I don't get the hype over this one. Yeah, so it's a stylish horror with a few decent scares. I found there was hardly any character development, and the film is especially hampered by a rushed third act where everything becomes all too familiar. I felt the film also suffered from some miscasting. When I see Ron Livingston, I expect him to be funny. I must concede that a film like this is best enjoyed in a packed cinema, but a good film should hold up no matter how or where you watch it.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Woody Allen, 1993) = 4/5

This is one of Allen's better post-1990 efforts. It's funny, fast, and there is excellent chemistry among the cast, especially between Allen and longtime co-star, Diane Keaton.

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) = 4/5

A gritty though sublimely shot crime-thriller. It takes a while to heat up, but it succeeds in all the right places. The highly acclaimed car chase lives up to its hype. It will not disappoint.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Les Diaboliques
* The Exorcist
* Submarine
* In Bruges
* A Separation
* Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father