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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

107332_galThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on James Thurber’s short story, is a property that has long beguiled Hollywood. The idea of escaping one’s ordinary life with fantasy, where we’re the hero. It was turned into a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, which is rather entertaining, but has yet to be remade in all that time. It’s the kind of attractive project that has attached big name talent at different stages of development, including Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey. It was never able to get off the ground, that is, until Ben Stiller stepped in, not just as director but also as the lead actor. Given Stiller’s directorial track record, there was suitable reason to anticipate what he could accomplish with Mitty, but the film too often feels like Stiller hamstrung, ably trying to marry a sincere indie sensibility to a mainstream sentimental holiday-released excursion for families. Stiller’s Walter Mitty never quite takes off.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a man who has trouble filling out an online profile. He doesn’t have too many experiences or places traveled. It may be why he frequently “zones out,” as his family terms it, escaping into fantastical daydreams. In real life he works as a photography assistant for LIFE magazine, a publication that is transitioning to a digital-only existence. The enigmatic photographer Sean (Sean Penn) has sent a collection of film negatives to Walter, making special note of how Negative #25 is his life’s masterpiece. However, Walter cannot find it and is having trouble getting in contact with Sean, who is overseas on assignment. Without that much-hyped negative/picture, Walter will surely be fired, and then he’ll never have a chance to ask out his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Walter sets out to Iceland and beyond to find the negative, stop daydreaming and finally live his life.

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter MittyThe very tone of the movie feels like a miscalculation. It’s the story of a daydreamer, a man who retreats into his head and lives out preferable fantasies that are whimsical and far-fetched. We all knew this going into the film. It’s the same as Thurber’s story. The problem is that when Walter gets the courage to embrace life, his life is full of whimsical and far-fetched moments. He jumps out of a helicopter in shark-infested waters, where the sharks are ravenously active. He also hops into a car and has to outrun an oncoming ash cloud from an exploding volcano. And then in the third act, he travels across a mountain range all by himself and manages to miraculously find one guy. I don’t think this approach works if his real-life adventures are on par with his whimsical fantasies. I suppose one could argue that this serves a point to make real life seem just as appealing as his mental retreats, but I think it harms the very execution of the movie. First, if there’s a parallel, it means that his fantasy sequences aren’t going to be too fantastic, squashing the potential of Walter’s imagination. The only fantasy I enjoyed was a Man of Steel-esque brawl with a bearded Adam Scott (TV’s Parks and Recreation). Secondly, it means that the serious “go get ‘em” message of the movie is occurring within a medium that ordinary citizens have little connection with. Make no mistake, Walter Mitty is clearly meant as a mainstream feature meant to inspire the masses with its sentimental stripes, but is the story of a superhero doing super deeds any more relatable to the common man?

Another problem plaguing Mitty is the illusion of depth. Beyond the simplistic platitude of “get out and live your life,” there really isn’t much more of an idea explored here. It’s not like this idea hasn’t been explored in, oh, hundreds of other stories. Regardless, the film often just becomes a two-step process of Old Walter feeling timid, and then, what’s this, the hip soundtrack with the likes of Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men starts pulsating, and Mitty boldly shifts into New Walter, the go-getter, the guy who’s going to take charge of his own life. It’s a strong soundtrack in all senses. This process is repeated throughout the second act of the script where most of Mitty’s overseas journeys take place. Also, it may sound petty, but let’s focus for a moment on the applicability of the movie’s message compared to the practicality of what is onscreen. Live your life, but how many of us can afford to go globetrotting on a whim? I understand the larger canvas meant to evoke Mitty’s growing sense of discovery, so I’ll let it slide. The theme of Walter Mitty isn’t so much developed as it is repeated. There’s not enough substance here. In the end, the movie feels like 100 minutes of a soundtrack and a message in search of a better movie.

Allow me illustrate one of those “go out and live, Walt” moments in the film. Walter is in Greenland (though filmed in Iceland) and needs to get to a fishing vessel. The man next to him is a helicopter pilot. Great. But he’s also drunk, so Walter understandably refuses to fly with the man. This seems like a very rationale decision, but then he fantasizes Cheryl coming through, urging him on through song (through song!), and the soundtrack starts pumping, and Walter runs out and literally jumps inside the ascending helicopter. It’s meant to be portrayed as a triumphant moment of embracing the uncertainty of life’s adventure, but in reality the movie just pressured its title character into getting into a flying vehicle with a drunken pilot. What? That’s irresponsible.

And then there’s just the lackluster characters and plotting. Walter Mitty is a nice enough guy but too milquetoast to be that appealing, relying upon the comic graces of Stiller to provide the filling. The character of Walter is basically a hodgepodge of other Stiller characters in previous movies, but the character feels too restrained for an actor of Stiller’s talent. I understand that the arc has to travel from passive to active, but it feels like the funny Stiller we’re all accustomed to is being held in check thanks to the film’s broad appeal feel-good sentimentality. There’s one brief moment of the anarchic, silly Stiller that we loved so much in Tropic Thunder, and it involves a weird fantasy where Walter suffers the reverse-aging Benjamin Button disorder. It doesn’t fit at all with the tone of the film, and that’s why it stands out. Walter is a nice guy but rather boring. He pins his journey of self-discovery on getting the girl, and then when presented with one minor obstacle at the start of Act Three, rather than speak with her, he assumes the worst and just gives up. The narrative requires one of those eleventh-hour misunderstandings to keep the guy and girl apart, but it’s a frustrating decision that makes me like Walter less.

131117165455-holidaymovie-secretlifeofwaltermitty-horizontal-galleryThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also filled with blunt product placement and some strange plot elements that don’t blend together. I’m not generally offended by product placement in movies when they make it oblivious; hey, a character has to drink something so why not a (insert product here)? But the fact that the Walter Mitty team actually makes Water’s teenage stint at Papa John’s a reveal about his character, and that the very store is meant to stand in as a reminder of his own deceased father, is just wrong. Then there’s the fact that Walter works as a negative corrector (analog job) at a magazine (troubled industry), and that magazine happens to be LIFE (which shuttered in 2000). Why all the analog contexts? Is it meant to convey Walter’s reluctance to change or adapt? The whole notion of the magazine downsizing gives the film a real-life aspect that just doesn’t feel appropriate for the movie. The fact that Walter’s journey is propelled by a quest for a single missing negative feels a tad too facile for the man’s transformation, but it’s made worse when the answer to the location of the negative is so transparently obvious from the get-go. It was so obvious I almost talked myself out of it. Most of the supporting characters in the film serve little effect on any of the events. They’re there just to provide minor details about Walter and that’s it.

The movie is so earnest and you can tell Stiller is trying hard, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ends up being a disappointing feel-good message lacking substance and much entertainment. The filmmakers have conviction, I’ll give them that, but it’s misplaced, and the film’s tone has too many distracting elements. The fact that real life mirrors Walter’s fantasy visions seems like a miscalculation from the start. Thurber’s short story didn’t have that much to it to begin with but we need more than this, an office schlub learning to live his life through improbable adventures meant to inspire the rest of us common folk. As a slice of escapist entertainment, it’s not fanciful enough, not creative enough, and not funny enough. As a motivational, heart-tugging ode to living one’s life, it falls into too many traps to feel applicable, insightful, or engaging. It looks beautiful and the people behind the film obviously mean well, but good intentions and nice camerawork are not the same as an effective movie built from the ground up, namely the lackluster story and characters. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like it has as much depth as a glossy, idealistic commercial, and perhaps for some this will suffice, but I found this Walter Mitty’s secret life not worth investigating.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Gangster Squad (2013)

1912It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.

In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.

90345_galThe main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.

Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional.  They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.

90346_galFinally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.

Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.

Nate’s Grade: C

Milk (2008)

The biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official is stirring, thoughtful, and occasionally limited. Sean Penn gives a wonderful performance as the captivating and tragic Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). He changes his look, his voice, how he carries his shoulders and moves his arms; it’s a terrific and transformative performance that only sometimes hits a few fey stereotypes. The movie mostly follows Milk’s path as a community organizer who successfully mobilized the gay rights movement. You’ll witness local politics in depth, and that’s my one reservation with this fine film – it focuses too heavily on the political formation of a movement and less on the man that kick-started it. You get little glimpses of Milk the man, and most of those glimpses happen to be his romantic relationships with annoying men. That said, director Gus Van Sant orchestrates real archival footage from the time including protestors and homophobic spokespeople, and it gives the movie an authentic relevancy. The deadly confrontation between Milk and White is played in a painful, very un-Hollywood approach that made me wince hard. It’s amazing to watch Milk and realize how far the American public has come since the 1970s and how much further we, as a nation, have to go.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Interpreter (2005)

This is a polished political thriller that hearkens back to the day of the 1970s, where Hollywood was willing to put out smart, complicated, involving political intrigue and have faith that adults would enjoy. The premise is sound and director Sydney Pollack sure knows how to add layers of complication and mystery as well as make you doubt everyone’s involvement. A scene where all the film’s major players somehow get on the same down town bus is a masterpiece of nuanced suspense. The ending, not so much. Nicole Kidman, as the white African U.N. interpreter that hears a planned assassination one night, is credible but a bit weightless in her part. It’s not enough the pretty girls are taking the ugly girl parts (Monster,The Hours), but now they’re taking African parts? Granted, the idea of a white African allows for a new insight into the struggle for ethnic and cultural identity. Sean Penn gives a nicely rattled performance, giving his character more edge then it even deserves. The Interpreter is a geo-political thriller that trusts its audience and mostly delivers a good time.

Nate’s Grade: B

21 Grams (2003)

21 Grams (2003)

Premise: A mathematician (Sean Penn) in need of a heart transplant, a recovering addict (Naomi Watts) mourning the loss of her husband and children, and an ex-con (Benicio Del Toro) who’s found redemption in Jesus, are all linked by a horrific car accident. The aftermath will bring them together out of grief, guilt, and revenge.

Results: The greatest asset 21 Grams has, bar none, is the trio of breathtaking performances. De Toro gives a powerful performance as a man consumed by grief and seeking answers in the unknown. Watts gives the definition of a raw performance. What isn’’t cool is the structure, told out of order like the director’s first film, the brilliant Amorres Perros, translated: Love’s a Bitch. But the mixed-up structure of 21 Grams is needlessly complicated d frustrating, plus it pulls you out of the movie. I’m sure there’s a rationale reason for it, but the surprises and expectations it produces are minimal. The whole thing would have been better plunked in an old-fashioned linear structure. The sensational performances and intelligent story will stay with you long after the film ends.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

Mystic River (2003)

The acting is phenomenal. The story is twisting and layered with incredible amounts of depth. The direction is calm and focused. This is a great Greek tragedy and a great crime story and human drama. Eastwood scores again.

Nate’s Grade: A

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