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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Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

First off, it’s going to be very hard not to compare this remake to the original. Not because of the original’s success or how revered it was, but because of how similar both films are. This new remake of Carrie from director Kimberly Peirce, unfortunately, doesn’t do enough to justify its retelling.

The original Carrie explored the theme of power and control between adults and teenagers. Carrie’s mother Margaret hits her when Carrie doesn’t listen to her. And in another scene, a teacher cusses at a group of students and smacks one of them in the face in front of the entire class.

What works against the remake is today’s current standards of parenting.  In today’s age, hitting a child is much more frowned upon than it was in the seventies. If a kid is cussed or smacked by a teacher in school nowadays, they can legitimately fight back by bringing it to the school board or by calling the police. These politics ends up watering down the film’s themes, removing a lot of the edges off of the story. The threat of violence, whether it’s coming from adult onto the teenager or vice versa, is dampened. The state of today’s politics is not something I hold against the film, but the film doesn’t seem to want to challenge current social taboos and play in the politically incorrect. The entire effect of the horror is watered down as a result.

Director Kimberly Peirce makes up for this by adding modern horror movie aesthetics onto the story. There are loud jump scares, sharp objects are held closely into people’s faces making frantic expressions and people creepily walk by in the background undetected. The major difference between the original and the remake lies in the way that it scares its audience. In the original, the horror was a looming creepiness that stayed with me after the film ended. I reflected upon the inevitable tragedy of Carrie being an unfortunate outcast being pushed to the point of no return. In the remake, the horror is emphasized in the immediate present of the physical violence that’s about to be unleashed.

Everybody looks attractive and for a story about a social outcast in an image-conscious high school environment, that is a problem. In the novel, Carrie is described as a plump girl. Chloe Grace-Moretz is pretty regardless of how much the filmmakers try to dress her down. This works against her, but other than that, Chloe Grace-Moretz does a good job with what’s she’s given.

Julianne Moore is scary as Margaret White. It’s much more over-the-top than Piper Laurie’s version. I would argue Moore’s performance is scarier, if only because it was more psychotic and violent by comparison. The most engaging scenes are between Margaret and Carrie. The supporting characters end up becoming more black-and-white and it comes off bland. If you ask me, what makes the story so tragic are the grey areas, the edges and how it was hard to imagine how things could have ended otherwise.

Carrie is an okay adaptation that doesn’t completely honor the mechanics of its tragic story and deters from challenging the political correctness of today. It comes off more like a fairy tale than a tragedy. What the remake ends up proving is how tight the original movie was and how things are much scarier when the horror stays with you long after the story has ended. I can only say this because I seen the original film. So overall, people who haven’t seen Brian DePalma’s Carrie will probably like this version more by default.

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

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 Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks  to provide for his lover and their newborn child. This decision puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. The sweeping drama unfolds over fifteen years as the sins of the past haunt the present days lives of two high school boys wrestling with the legacy they’ve inherited.

Ryan Gosling gives the silent minimalist performance as the motorcyclist Luke Glanton. It’s slowly becoming to be his trademark, and justifiably so because he’s great at it. Bradley Cooper appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio as a guest, where it was said he was the most promising acting talent of his graduating year at Pace University. Bradley Cooper is officially starting to show that talent now. It wasn’t displayed in his previous projects. Dane DeHaan is a promising versatile talent. He really sells torture well. I look forward to seeing him as Harry Osbourne in the next The Amazing Spider-man movieBen Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta both sell slimy well. It’s a good cast and they all deliver, but they all have accomplished similar roles in other past projects.

The Place Beyond The Pines‘s core theme, due to the nature of the plot structure, will not be clear to the audience till the latter half. The story makes a shift and changes its central character. In that very moment, to really enjoy the film, the audience has to let go, take a step back and view the film on a larger canvas. Characters becomes archetypes and plot becomes saga. The sins of the father pass onto the son and we see the cause-and-effect echo from generation to generation.

For me, I took that step back and all of a sudden I was pondering on bigger themes. Instead of thinking about bank robbers stealing money or police battling corruption, I thought about karma, the butterfly effect and the idea of violence perpetuating violence. At the final shot of the film, I was moved. It was a poignant, beautiful and poetic ending. I was impressed how the narrative touched me with its subtext by completely divorcing it with its supertext. This gambit the film plays on the audience is probably what will divide them. It doesn’t help that the supertext of the film utilizes familiar genre conventions; at times it’s a heist movie, other times it’s a police corruption movie. That might throw some people off but that’s what I loved about it. It was a bold narrative move and it was well played. Derek Cianfrance, well done!

World War Z by Marc Forster

World War Z by Marc Forster

Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie pandemic.

I haven’t read the original novel going into World War Z. There have been some complaints that this film departs heavily  from the novel, but apparently the novel reads like a series of personal accounts. If that’s the case, it’s probably more effective to experience the story through a first-person perspective for a film. On with the review…

The PG-13 rating has always been an interesting constraint for horror movies as it cancels the use of gore and forces more ingenuity in creating the scares. Marc Forster creates a constant frantic sense of jeopardy and properly raises the stakes. Even though it’s possible to outsmart and escape from these running zombies, we fear that the characters will eventually fatigue and lose from being outnumbered. The opening set piece was shot too shaky and cut too fast and it seemed like Marc Forster didn’t learn anything from the action in Quantum of Solace. But the set pieces improve as the film progresses.

By the finale, I was fully immersed into this world, alert of everything that can startle the fast-running zombies and looking out for every possible human mistake. I was cringing at every door squeak and wished a can of WD-40 would just fall out of the sky on their laps. That said, the characters don’t make typical stupid horror movie mistakes. Even in times of risk and with the occasional accidental mistake, they take the proper precautions and do the most sensical thing.

Zombie films typically are set in a town or city. What makes World War Z an unique experience is its international scope, we get to see the entire world react to the zombie outbreak. It gives a political and cultural cross-section of how different countries would react to such a catastrophic event. It holds a mirror to our current world. This was the most interesting part of it for personally as it sets itself apart from George Romero films or The Walking Dead.

The most valuable Brad Pitt brings to the film besides his star power is the big-budget production values itself. The cast performs fine but it’s by no means a performance-driven film. The studio has decided to produce a sequel, as the war in the novel lasts for a decade. And it will probably continue to draw from the U.N reports in the novel. Depending if Brad Pitt returns to the role or if the story unfolds with a new protagonist, the story can go either which way. I’ll probably see it then but for now, the epilogue doesn’t tease me that much.

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.