The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

 

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. But when his job is threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

I am typically not a fan of Ben Stiller’s comedy – whenever he dons a wig and plays a crazy character, it is one-note and awkward. Stiller fares best when he is a normal person reacting to an awkward situation, instead of being the source of awkwardness and the nebbish Walter Mitty character certainly plays to those strengths. Stiller’s other brand of ‘costume play’ comedy in the fantasy sequences is fortunately reduced to a minimal. Here he is at his most naturally charming and while Zoolander fans may disagree, but this is now officially my favorite thing Ben Stiller has directed and acted in.

Kristin Wiig is also naturally charming as Mitty’s love interest and gets to shine in a musical sequence where she does a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Sean Penn has a funny supporting role as artsy photographer Sean O’Connell, a role that smartly sources Penn’s trademark intensity for laughs.

The production design is impressive, with its visual compositions practically lifted from hardcover graphic design books and nifty editing transitions accompanied by cool looking fonts, which to some extent owes itself to Stranger Than Fiction. Stuart Dryburgh’s photography delivers a true sense of awe for New York’s urban cityscape and Greenland’s natural landscapes. The story reason is to make Walter Mitty look like an ant in a big world, but that overwhelming sense of the environment towering over man seeps over onto the audience.

The reality of the film’s own world is suspect, like the logistics of how an employee is able to leave work and fly off to a foreign country, or how big of a jerk the new corporate supervisor played by Adam Scott is being. None of this matters because the story is a fable after all. The viewer may feel in moments that they need to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and if that moment should occur, go along with it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is imaginative and humorously made, and even in its weaker illogical moments is ultimately compensated by its charm. The lesson of someone who realizes he is missing out on life by daydreaming is just darn compelling, and it is emotionally cathartic watching Mitty wake up.

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The Internship by Shawn Levy

The Internship by Shawn Levy

Two salesmen whose careers have been torpedoed by the digital age find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment.

The Internship has the misfortune of being wrongfully marketed by its trailer, which sells one of the film’s throwaway jokes about the X-men movies as if it was the best kneeslapping joke in a cheap goofy comedy. I scoffed when I saw the trailer, but The Internship isn’t entirely what its trailer represents to be. What is hidden from everybody is that it’s also partly a drama delivering a positive message about striving forward and taking risks in life.

For the most part, it’s a charming comedy drama. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play to their own strengths. Vaughn always had a natural salesman type quality and here he really sells that.

The stark contrast between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s characters, who are old school salesmen, and the young tech-savvy geek kids is overly exaggerated. The film acts as though being an face-to-face type salesman means never coming into any contact with the internet, smart phones and have no knowledge of contemporary popular culture. This is primarily where the comedy is drawn from and it all varies from a laugh to a chuckle to no laughs. The comedy fares better when it doesn’t draw from that character contrast. One noteworthy gag was the Google team building event where they all played a faux Quidditch match. That was knee slapping hilarious. Are team building activities at Google really that much fun?

In the end, the sincerity of The Internship‘s life affirming message is somewhat tainted by the fact that the film plays like a Google recruitment ad. For a viewer that may be taken back by the big blatant advertisement will probably not enjoy the film very much. It didn’t bother me much because there was just enough sincerity and laughs to pull me through the commercialisms. That is the dividing line between audiences who will be charmed by The Internship or be turned off by it, because strictly speaking it is a bit of a mixed bag.

The Heat by Paul Feig

The Heat by Paul Feig

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Heat is a comedy that brings both familiar and fresh genre elements. The buddy cop movie elements are the familiar portion, but what’s fresh is the comedy pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Most notably, it’s a buddy cop movie that stars two women.

Melissa McCarthy is a living comedy engine. The key to her performance is that she’s not approaching the part as a comedienne, but as a dramatic actress as well. She delivers every line like her character is totally serious. The story is partly about the social classes in Boston and it is established that McCarthy’s Mullins comes from a tough Boston neighborhood. She incorporates that into her performance. In a lesser actress’s hands, it would have been raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

Sandra Bullock plays social awkwardness well and a good straight man to McCarthy. Again she brings her charming personable star quality and it’s hard not to like her for being so self-deprecating. This role has a similar arc to her character in Ms. Congeniality – an uptight by-the-book cop who needs to learn to let go. Suffice to say, Bullock and McCarthy make a great comedic duo.

The action scenes take a back seat and comedy is the main priority. The entire cast is full of comedians and comedy-capable actors. Standup comedian Bill Burr, Jane Curtin and Marlon Wayans add a variety of comedy dimensions with their supporting roles. Thomas Wilson, famous for being Biff in the Back to the Future films, as Melissa McCarthy’s emasculated police captain brought a huge gaping smile on my face. It was like watching Biff being upstaged in an alternate timeline.

Bridesmaids 
director Paul Feig understands that there is no moral barometer for comedy and isn’t afraid to risk bad taste for laughs. They hold nothing sacred here. There’s a running gag with an albino that had me in stitches. Underneath all the comedy, the movie is subtly about women working in a male-dominated workplace. I like how the film stays true to this concept. There’s no love subplot with a male suitor and it even draws comedy from women dealing with misogyny.

A great deal of improvisation was done in the comedic scenes. Despite of that, the film is well edited. The comedy never stops the story from moving forward and it seems a lot of comedy babies were killed in the editing room. I laughed consistently throughout the entire film. It’s a well made comedy by people that like and understand its workings. Now that they’ve announced a sequel, I look forward to that as well.

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods by Masahiro Hosoda

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods by Masahiro Hosoda

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods takes place several years after the titanic battle with Majin Buu. Bills, the God of Destruction, hearing that a Saiyan has defeated Freeza, awakens from a long slumber. Bills tracks down Son Goku and challenges him to a fight…

I read Dragonball Z as a manga. I didn’t watch the series as an anime nor does the anime bring any justice to the story. Anybody who jokes that the fights in the Dragonball Z anime go on forever, I actually agree with you. But also I respectfully refer you to the manga. I never got around to seeing Dragonball GT because Akira Toriyama didn’t write it, which it is precisely why I am both excited and unsure when I heard about this movie. Imagine if J.K. Rowling added an extra chapter between the ending and the epilogue in Harry Potter, how would the fans feel? What could a new Dragonball Z movie possibly mean? Is Toriyama going to continue and end the saga again? Or is it a mere trip down memory lane? Most of all, which one would I prefer? I am of two minds.

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods is two thirds nostalgic fan service and one third story expansion. The Z Warriors all return but unfortunately do not have much to do besides Goku and Vegeta. Every character gets to have their little moment, but these moments are all exactly pitch-perfect to their characterizations. Their interplay is what makes it fun. Vegeta does some things that I would never dream of, and he ends up being the most engaging character. In the end, it all hangs on Goku to solve the conflicts singlehandedly and for that he comes off more bland without assistance.

There’s never an impending sense of threat, partly because the story automatically connects to the epilogue of Dragonball Z. Bills the Destroyer is no Frieza or Cell. There’s nothing as dramatic as Krillin’s death on planet Namek or a young Gohan falling onto Vegeta in monkey form. But it’s an unfair comparison as there is no time to properly build Bills up as a proper villain with any personal vendetta involved. Bills is threatening only because he is physically powerful. Toriyama is aware of his limitations and does what he can.

To Toriyama’s credit, Battle of the Gods properly expands the Dragonball universe with its new villain, establishes a higher realm of power and Goku achieves a new ability at the end. I would have liked more exploration on Goku’s newfound ability and how it works. But again, it’s glossed over from the lack of screen time. There’s no time for a huge arc, Goku isn’t allowed to fall immeasurably, rise and come back as immensely as we all want to see. Nor is there enough of time to kill any of the Z Warriors and resurrect them at the end. That would only be feasible if Toriyama revamped the series, but that doesn’t seem to be the plan.

Before the movie started, I scanned the theater audience. I was surprised to see there were many 40-year-old parents bringing 10-year-old kids, and only a moderate amount of people in their late 20’s like me that would have properly caught the Dragonball trend in the mid-90’s. The film’s first act contains a comedic set piece that runs for ten minutes and it’s here where the film won me over. It made me self-conscious at first when the children started filling the theater with laughter. They were laughing at every single gag and the thing was I was laughing as well. And in laughing, it sparked memories. I’m remembered how funny Dragonball used to be. The first 4 issues of the comic book were immensely perverted and it acted as an early version of sex ed. In that moment, I let go. Yes, the Z Warriors don’t have much to do, but their little character moments had me cackling like a fiend. Yes, Bills the Destroyer is no Frieza or Cell but I love that that there’s a new villain for Goku to fight. Yes, there’s no real impending sense of threat but I totally forgot about that and immersed myself into this world again. I didn’t care anymore. Every time a character transformed into Super Saiyan or every time two opposing ki blasts had a tug-of-war, my mouth still dropped in sheer awe. I was transformed  back into the 10 year-old chubby boy who was aching to buy the next Dragonball manga at the local newsstand, wishing that I can fly and fire Kamehameha blasts at school bullies.

So, is this movie mostly fan service? Yes, my laughing and overall enjoyment is more deeply rooted in the series than the children in the audience. If they wanted to get into Dragonball Z, they probably shouldn’t start with this installment. In the end, does it really matter that film is fan service? No, because I would have enjoyed it equally as a kid anyways.

Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook

After India’s (played by Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller has stated that this is not a vampire movie. To this I say, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”  Regardless of what Miller says, it’s a vampire film or not, Stoker is clearly playing to the beats of a vampire film underneath its surface.There are things at play that suggest this, Uncle Charlie is fixated with India and he preys on her. India seems to possess some kind of innocence or purity that is at stake of being corrupted. Lastly, the movie is called Stoker. That’s no accident.

It’s as if someone took a traditional vampire movie, folded it inside out, wore it like a bag on his head looking outside from within. That’s the way to watch Stoker. Anybody who says there is nothing happening in this story is not looking at the subtext. The subtext is the supertext, that’s where the story is taking place. Park Chan-Wook leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to ponder about what’s going on. There is a whole lot going on if you tune to the film’s grammar and look in the right places.

Matthew Goode has always had this steely piercing look that looks sinister and that quality is well used under Park’s direction. Park knows how to pull back and just shoot an actor in a certain pose to emote a mood or feeling. As Uncle Charlie, we never know what he’s thinking or if we can really trust his intentions. Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman give fine performances but Matthew Goode gives the standout performance. The real star of the film however is Park Chan-Wook himself. He elevates the script by adding a visual poetry that subtlely implies. Everything is played at such a low volume that the audience is unnerved waiting for the tension to crescendo.

A good companion piece to Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire horror film Thirst; it’s probably what got Park the job. This is probably one of the best English-language debut for an Asian director. It’s a smooth transition as his directorial stamp is very much present. You will need to put in more brain work for Stoker, but it pays off.

Miss Bala by Gerardo Naranjo

Miss Bala by Gerardo Naranjo

Miss Bala tells the story of Laura Guerrero (played by Stephanie Sigman), who dreams of becoming a beauty contest queen in a Mexico dominated by organized crime.

I am not familiar with what life is like in Mexico, so it was very interesting to follow Laura as she is taken through the inner world of the Mexican drug cartels. There are some very cruel moments of violence and I found myself scared for this girl the whole time. Not to sound distasteful, but I was really scared that she was going to be raped. Any time a gangster with a machine gun comes up to Laura, I was thinking, “He can totally do it right now. There’s nothing stopping him!” When she’s not being threatened sexually, it was the possibility of her being shot to death. There are a few long take sequences in the film where Laura dodging crossfire in gun battle that puts you in the moment. We see how the violence and the corruption eventually weighs down on this girl, eventually corrupts her dream and sucks the living soul out of her.

However, Miss Bala commits the sin of choosing its message over its protagonist in its third act. Laura becomes progressively passive and ends up being an inactive character who simply observes and obeys the orders she’s given by the gangsters. Stephanie Sigman is a competent lead actress and carries the film but her character has no motivation from that point onwards. It builds to an open ending that I thought was too “open” for its own good. The film wants to present Laura as an innocent victim caught in the middle of all this turmoil, but I still think the victim angle can still be clear with her actively trying to accomplish a goal. It’s as if director Gerardo Naranjo thought it would be too much and settled on his presenting his message but the audience definitely was hungry for that extra mile. I’m sure that wasn’t Naranjo’s goal. That said, Miss Bala still gripped me for the first two thirds.

It’s a nice piece of “issue-tainment” nonetheless.