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 Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Growing up as a Chinese boy in the immigrant culture of Canada, aspects of Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures always seemed similar to me. I don’t think we are all that different after all. We are all family-oriented, express love through home-cooking, and share a deep respect for family ancestry. Subsequently, our mothers aren’t that different either; they nag and embarrass us in public and as indicated by the film’s title, they love using the guilt trip. That is primarily how I connected to the truths and comedy of The Guilt Trip.

Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen create a charming chemistry as the mother and son. Seth Rogen is a good straight man. I don’t know thing one about Barbara Streisand, her music career or seen any of her movies, but she is the secret ingredient that makes everything work. Without the charm or the truth to the way Streisand played the role, the role would have been annoying very quickly.

The nagging and bickering can be grating for some audiences because of how real everything is presented, maybe to the point it doesn’t feel like entertainment. For me with my theory about Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures being very similar, it was an insightful engaging experience watching that dynamic being acted out onscreen. That said, I probably would enjoy watching it with my sister laughing about our mother than watch it awkwardly alone with my mother.

I laughed throughout the entire film. What I liked most about The Guilt Trip was how honest and real it was. The truth of the situation never precedes the humor. Anne Fletcher and her editor cut the comedy gags with discipline, the gags never outstay their welcome and all move the story forward. There are even times where there aren’t laughs. That’s where the truth  pays off as it delivers some genuine heartfelt moments between the mother and son. And the heartbeat in The Guilt Trip is why I would recommend it.

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

Jim Norton: American Degenerate

American Degenerate by Jim Norton

Recently I have seen a new side to comedian Jim Norton. This year Norton showed a more charming intellectual side when he debated with Lindy West over the topic of rape jokes on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He presented a strong logical mind and gave well-constructed counter arguments. Aside from joking that he and West should have ended the debate by making out, Norton’s side of the argument came off stronger at the end.

That matured charm continues in American Degenerate, his second comedy special from Epix, mostly in the form of a smile. Specifically, I mean the “I’m just joking” smile post-punchline. It consistently reminds the audience that he’s joking and reassures them to laugh along. In the past, Norton’s graphically crude jokes have ended with such conviction, at times it was hard to laugh. I immediately pondered about how true his jokes or perversions were. The charm shown here makes a substantial difference in his grotesque-oriented humor. Looking thinner and healthier, he delivers his jokes in a laid-back fashion and we are now able to laugh at both his perversions AND his mind.

And for that, this new hour act gets better as it goes along. Norton holds nothing back. He talks about the John Travolta masseuse lawsuit, the Colorado shootings and gun control. But the highlights for me were the self-revealing bits, like the bit about an annoying nudist at his local gym and a self-deprecating chunk where Norton talks about having sleep apnea (a condition I never heard of before) where the patient needs to wear a breathing mask to sleep. Norton even talks about how he hates bloggers, specifically how audiences like to blog and nitpick what offends them. That comedians shouldn’t have to apologize for what they say, reiterating the point he made on Totally Biased.

As an aspiring standup comedian, I agree with that statement. Comedians shouldn’t have to apologize and it’s silly how audiences nitpick what offends them. This is a mindset that audiences don’t realize themselves, so it’s good that that thought is being communicated out to the stratosphere. And on the topic of freedom, perhaps the most enjoyable part about this special is watching Norton reveling in his freedom of speech and openly talking about his thoughts, political views and sexuality, meanwhile laughing at himself in the process. He does all this unapologetically. And for that, it’s aptly titled American Degenerate.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

As the result of a childhood wish, John Bennett’s (played by Mark Walhberg) teddy bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), came to life and has been by John’s side ever since – a friendship that’s tested when Lori (played by Mila Kunis), John’s girlfriend of four years, wants more from their relationship.

When telling a joke, first you setup the premise, which lays out the confines of what the audience is about to laugh about. Afterwards, you deliver the  punchline. The punchline is an unexpected surprise connected within the confines of the original premise.

My major problem with Ted is that it tells jokes that delivers punchlines that are outside of its original premise. The result is still a laugh, but in retrospect it’s a laugh that does not feel earned because the surprises are coming randomly from left field. Sometimes, the jokes even break character (i.e. a group of bullies beat up a child, a child tries to join in to beat him as well but is rejected by the bullies and the kid that is being beaten up… that would never happen!). As it went from gag to gag, my mind kept looping back and thinking how most of the jokes were unearned laughs, resulting in a somewhat empty experience. It’s like that scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon where a laugh has long died off and you hear people’s coughs echoing in the theater.

The more I thought about it, it was all lacking in the writing. The story needed more character and plot and it seems Seth MacFarlane only delivered the bare minimum without fully exploring his own concept. Every time John chooses to spend time with Ted instead of Lori, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. We know Lori is frustrated with John, John knows this but he does not do anything different. So nothing is moving forward and we start to wonder why Lori is being so patient with John. Even the subplot with Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy stalker trying to steal Ted felt like a cheap writer’s trick to force a third act finale set piece.

I do think Mark Wahlberg is great at comedy, as exemplified in the past with his performance in The Departed where he was creepily funny. He was also the only reason that The Other Guys was funny as the straight-man, also because he was yelling at Will Ferrel the whole time.

Ted has some great jokes, even though my two favorite gags (the Thunder song and the girl-naming bit) from the movie are in the trailer. The fact that it’s all being said by a computer generated teddy bear makes it so much more psychotic. Ultimately, Ted feels lazy and having such a creative premise it makes me think about how much better it could have been if Seth MacFarlane put more effort into the writing. It just needed that little more.

And no, I am not familiar with Family Guy.

Casa De Ma Padre by Matt Piedmont

Casa Di Ma Padre by Matt Piedmont

Plot summary: Casa De Ma Padre tells the story of Armando Álvarez (played by Will Ferrell), who must save his father’s ranch from a powerful drug lord.

I am not a fan of Will Ferrell’s comedy. The only two Will Ferrell performances that I liked were his parts in Stranger Than Fiction and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The only reason I took interest in Casa De Ma Padre was that the trailer had me on the floor when I first saw it on Apple Trailers. It’s my belief that you should never totally write somebody off. So I decided to check this one out.

So thoughts? It’s not as funny as it ought to be. I laughed a total of four times – the 2 major laughs was over the song number “Yo No Se” (Spanish for “I don’t know”) and a gag with an animal puppet. The film relies mostly on all the B-movie gags done in the faux trailers in Grindhouse to give you a B-movie feel – bad cuts, blaring continuity errors and entire reels missing. That B-movie gag has officially run its course.

There was something admirable about Will Ferrell learning Spanish just to be funny in a film. The language barrier forces more discipline in Ferrell’s comedic performance than the usual “Will Ferrell Random Comedy Theater”. Often times, it’s too easy when a comedian can stop committing to a moment and go into another bit right away to milk a laugh.

The story for the most part is relatively serious, which I did not expect for a Will Ferrell movie. The actors are all playing it straight but partly because we’re experiencing the story through its sometimes intentionally erroneous subtitles, it’s not being played straight enough for it be ironic. It’s like watching a big inside joke that you can’t laugh at because everybody else won’t let you in on the joke. Strangely, I found myself going along with the story instead of the jokes and sat through the rest of the film to see how the story would play out. Perhaps if the story was more comedic in its own structure, the gags would have been punctuated for a more comedic experience.

Casa De Ma Padre is not terrible, but it was a weird experience and I cannot fully recommend it on the basis that it’ll make you laugh. In the end, the whole essence of the film’s humor is unfortunately all in the trailer itself.

Here’s the trailer that floored me: