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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47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

47 Ronin is a film reimagining of a popular Japanese folktale that is stuck inside its mythic contraptions. Everybody is an archetype, as opposed to a character. Love, hate or brotherhood between characters is assumed rather than shown through character development. The story starts and ends with an unknown narrator, who tells the story as if we were all listening to an old tale by a campfire. The end result is that it places a distance between the story and the audience. It is as if the story itself is matted on a frame, and we are just looking at it in a gallery with a curator recounting the story as opposed to the viewer experiencing the story from a first-person perspective.

Keanu Reeves is not the problem here. There is no room here to critique about woodiness as there wasn’t enough for him to do. He is casted here for marketing reasons and it really shows. Reeves’ character is sidelined by Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays the leader of the Ronin. Sanada carries the film with his powerful presence; you really do believe he can really hurt someone with a sword. He has long been the go-to guy for American-Japanese co-productions and it’s finally nice to see him in a central role. Tadanobu Asano also shows up to chew some scenery as the villain and adds a depth that wasn’t on the page. My fingers are still crossed he will play Genghis Khan again in a sequel to Mongul.

Hearing the film opened poorly in Japan is unfortunate. Perhaps it is uncomfortable for the Japanese to see their own folktale retold in a foreign production. I have bulked at my fair share of Hollywood misrepresentations of Chinese culture, and evidently there is a sufficient amount of Orientalism in the film. Though the fantasy elements and the production design are so extreme it plays closer to a graphic novel. The more I think about why the fantasy elements were added, the more it seems like it is there to justify the casting of Keanu Reeves as a half-Caucasian half-Japanese outsider amongst an entire cast of Japanese actors. I can’t help but imagine what a more realistic telling of this story would have been like as the Japanese cultural elements and Samurai politics were more interesting than the magic and mythic beasts.

To sum it all up, 47 Ronin is a fantasy graphic novel style adaptation of a Japanese folktale released in December. Perhaps it is not exactly the most festive way to start the new year with all the beheadings and Samurai ritual suicide. The story also takes a long time to get set up, which asks for a lot of patience on the viewer’s part. The ideal crowd would have been overseas anime geeks who are fascinated with Japanese pop culture, and perhaps for that, the film may have fared better if it was released in the March-April slot. That all said, even with its flaws and supposed qualifiers, 47 Ronin accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s just not for everybody.
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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Days before Christmas, a child Pietari (played by Onni Tommila), the son of a reindeer herder Rauno (played by Jorma Tommila), stumbles across a supposed archeological excavation located on a mountain near his remote rural home. Strange things begin to occur: large herds of reindeer are found dead and children start disappearing across the town. The reindeer herders begin an investigation and unravels the shocking, ugly truth about Santa Claus.

It’s an original spin on the Santa Claus myth. The idea that Santa Claus was a supernatural being who’s duty was to punish naughty children. It put me on the edge of my seat as it was so fresh to see everything we know about Santa Claus turned into a dark evil thing. I was wondering which direction the story was going to go. The story knows exactly how much information to give you at certain points to keep you engaged and guessing. Rare Exports manages to build up its mystery up with discipline and competently builds to a worthy action-packed finale.

They manage to create some genuine dark creepy moments as well. There’s a great scene where a captured Santa Claus figure sits naked and totally unresponsive in a room. The adult reindeer herders scratch their heads over what to do with him. As a child (who has done something “naughty”) enters and the Santa figure springs to life, slowly setting his eyes locked onto the child, ready to pounce on him. The audience is ahead of the characters on what’s going on, but only so slightly. We become afraid for what will happen to these children if the parents cannot protect them from dark forces. It does touch to some cautionary tale-like themes about the safety of children (though it’s too scary for kids under 12).

The thing I loved most was how they crafted the Santa Claus conspiracy, it titters between a fictionalized conspiracy, myth and reality that makes you almost think,”Hey, this could happen.” And that balance alone makes it a fresh viewing experience.

Funny enough, I did see this during Christmas and I do recommend it as a Christmas movie if you ever get sick of watching Love Actually or any of the Die Hard movies over and over again. But in all seriousness, I wouldn’t wait till next December.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.

Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols

A man gets intense apocalyptic nightmares. He hides this from his family and begins to build a shelter, but this begins to strain his relationship with his family and the community.Is he just plain crazy or is there something bad on the horizon?

Michael Shannon gives a subtle layered performance as Curtis LaForche. He communicates the difficulty of having an unexplainable problem. He feels something bad is about to happen. It’s nothing concrete but something about the world doesn’t seem right. He loves his wife, but doesn’t want to worry her. He communicates all this with his face.

Jessica Chastain is a believable onscreen wife and mother. A lot of cinematic mothers tend to be unconvincing and this is noteworthy. Most cinematic wives have too much makeup on, do not carry enough worry in their eyes and most importantly they perform without a familiarity  of their own spaces. When Jessica Chastain does household chores or embraces her own child, she does it with a muscle memory as if she performs these tasks daily. When Curtis and Samantha argue, it is a very realistic portray of how a married couple fights. This added a lot of believability to the story, especially when the central husband and wife relationship comes into strain. Actually yeah, I’d like a wife like Jessica Chastain in this movie.

You know how when you continually look at leaves being tossed in the wind or waves crashing upon a beach, you start to space out and ponder about the workings of the universe? The film’s cinematography captures that feeling exactly in scenes where Curtis looks at his environment around him with suspicion. In Take Shelter, nature is an uncertain place. Underlying beneath it’s beauty is something bigger behind that’s going on that we are unaware of. To say it’s beautiful cinematography is almost missing the point, it’s definitely the deepest, most communicative cinematography I have seen this year.

This is Jeff Nichols’ second film. He has mastered the art of slow-boiled tension, which is a storytelling technique that is on the brink of extinction in an age where the short-attention gene is on the rise. I also love how the story moves forward and how fresh story points are revealed. There’s not much Basil Exposition, they just jump right into it and at times the audiences is set to figure out the context. David Wingo’s soundtrack is ambiguous and embodies a creeping sensation of foreboding. And along with the story, this ambiguity uneases the audience. After all, do we want Curtis to be crazy and committed to an asylum? Or do we want to see something big bad happen?

The story has a strong grasp of how the audience feels about the story in any given moment. It knows when to slow down and does so, particularly in the shelter sequence where Samantha and Curtis discuss whether to exit the shelter. You want and dread the conclusion at the same time. The ending is truly something. It’s an glorious epic finale.

And I have to say, I was very pleased to be manipulated this way.

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.