Tuesday, May 27, 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)




I’d been looking forward to watching THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013) since first seeing the trailer. Alas, I wasn’t able to see it in the theaters because it came out at the end of last year when my wife and I break the bank watching all the Best Picture Oscar nominees. WALTER MITTY was not one of them, so we had to wait until it came on Amazon to rent.

It was worth the wait, because it is a wonderfully sweet film.

Now, don’t walk away saying, “Ah, Keohane loves everything!” I don’t (and I’m making a pout-face to prove it). I know reviews have been mixed with this one. After seeing the film and writing this review, I checked what others thought. (I hate reading these before seeing a movie because, aside from the risk of reading a spoiler, I want to go in sans any preconceived notions about the film’s merits or lack thereof.) Seems this is one of those love/hate deals – you either enjoyed it, letting it touch your loving, tender heart, or you hated it, finding such sentimentality and an optimistic view of humanity – “Humbug!”

A film’s merit is a highly subjective thing. It’s not always enough to garner a decent (by American standards) box office income. Look at some of the obscure Academy Award nominees from last year. NEBRASKA (2013), for example. It’s not the kind of film that will resonate with the majority of viewers – but those for whom it did strike a chord (for me, it was the stark realism of aging in a small, forgotten town – reminded me a lot of my late father-in-law), it left impressions lingering long after the lights came on. It was a successful film in that regard, just didn’t rake in the dough.

One way to better the odds of success at the box office is for people to go into the film with the right expectations. Just look at what happened (if you were around then) with THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982). It was advertised as a comedy even though everyone behind the film knew it was a dark drama – a quirky, dark drama with a few laughs, but a drama nonetheless. The majority of folks excitedly went to see this Robin Williams “comedy,” and walked out wanting their money back. I went in knowing it wasn’t a comedy and came out exultant. Loved it. More recently, some evil people advertised the drama AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013) as if it were a comedy, when it was far from it (again, it had darkly-funny moments, all of which found their way into the trailers).

In MITTY’s case, the trailer, I feel, advertised the film perfectly, but people seemed to go in thinking either it was a typical Stiller adult comedy, or a high-brow dramedy. What it is, is a quirky fairy tale about an introverted businessman who spends more time locked in fantasies about how his life could be than actually doing anything about it, until one day….

“Until one day….” Another way of saying “Once Upon A Time.”

“Once upon a time, a lonely man named Walter found himself with a problem, and the only way out of it was to step away from his bubble of a life and see the world.“

Director Ben Stiller (TROPIC THUNDER, 2008, ZOOLANDER, 2001) also stars as Walter Mitty, the above-mentioned shy man working for Life Magazine in their Negative Properties Department. This is the dark, deserted section of the company where film negatives are stored after being delivered by famous photographers who, over the years, have made Life what it is today. The number of negatives for him to handle has dropped significantly with the advent of digital photography, making the workday life of Walter and his associate Hernando (Adrian Martinez – AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013) a quiet and isolated endeavor. There is, however, one famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning exception: photographer Sean O’Connell, who still uses film rather than process digitally. More later about this very enjoyable side character, played with perfection by the always-on-target actor Sean Penn (MILK, 2008, MYSTIC RIVER, 2003). O’Connell sends in a roll of film – his final role, it seems, as he is retiring, though one assumes he is much like Stephen King in this regard and retires often – with specific instructions that only Walter may handle it. Though the two have never met in person, their mutual respect for each other’s abilities has become a long-distance friendship.

At the same time O’Connell writes a letter to the Editor-in-Chief telling him to use one specific frame on the roll for their next cover. This picture, he says, will be the “quintessential image” of both his, and the magazine’s, illustrious careers. His instructions, plus the news that Life will cease to be a print magazine after this final issue (it is going to be online-only), makes this mysterious photograph the most important piece of film in the magazine’s history, as this image will adorn its final cover.
Problem is, there is one frame missing from the roll O’Connell sent to Mitty. No need to say which one, and Walter needs to find it, quickly. To do that, he must find Sean O’Connell. To do that, he needs to take some risks.

This is the basic premise of the film, and what happens next I will leave to your own viewing. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is one of those movies where, aside from the humor and the stellar (no pun intended) acting, the enjoyment is in following the character’s growth, or lack of, throughout.

Is what happens next for our hero realistic? Not really. It’s not supposed to be. After 40-plus years of living in a fantasy world of his own making, Walter Mitty is suddenly stepping out into a real-life adventure. If that adventure was boring, well, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell. But that’s OK, because like I said at the beginning, this is a fairy tale. A Once Upon A Time.

I’m usually lukewarm towards Ben Stiller’s movies. Some have been quite good and others… meh. I have to be in the right mood for him, because the characters he usually plays are not always likeable. Goofy, yes, but oftentimes annoying. Here, he portrays a shy, lonely everyman with a quiet humility.  He’s such a sweet character, you root for him in every scene. Aside from trying to find the mysterious photograph, Walter is also pining away for the love of his life, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig- BRIDESMAIDS, 2011, DESPICABLE ME 2, 2013), who hardly knows he exists. Wiig’s Melhoff is another sweet character who is obviously a great match for Walter, if he can only get out of his own way to talk to her without zoning out.

This is a big device early in the film. Walter Mitty doesn’t just daydream, he practically goes catatonic. I expected at some point that these fantasies would be diagnosed as petit-mal seizures, but no. He’s just weird. These spells garner the unwanted attention of a corporate “fixer” named Ted Hendricks, hired by LifeMagazine to transition the company to a web-only ‘zine, and lay off a large percentage of the employees. Adam Scott (the TV show PARKS AND RECREATION and 2010’s PIRANHA 3D) does well as this caricature of a bad guy. I say “caricature” because he is played with no morals or scruples – the complete anti-Mitty, so not a very believable character. One striking feature about him is his terrible, terrible beard (and my apologies to Mister Scott if that is, in fact, your real beard). Maybe they made it fake-looking as a modern-day Snidely Whiplash moustache, who knows?  When Hendricks reads the letter from the photographer, he harangues Walter for the picture so persistently it becomes the driving force behind him needing to find Sean O’Connell.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the 1939 short story by James Thurber, has been made into a film before – in 1947 starring Danny Kaye. I’ve never seen that one. In fact, even though the actor shares almost the same name as me, I’m not a huge Danny Kaye fan. Maybe if my almost-namesake didn’t play such dorks, I’d like him better. (Having been a huge dork myself growing up, I preferred slightly different role models.) In the ‘47 film, Walter has a run-in with spies on the subway and is swept away on an adventure of intrigue, a plot more in line with the short story. I probably won’t watch the film, however, because it has Danny Kaye in it.

Back to the twenty-teens: This film is peppered with many small but strong performances from known and lesser-known actors, from a drunken helicopter pilot in Greenland, played with breathy realism by ├ôlafur Darri ├ôlafsson (STORMLAND, 2011), who also happens to be an expatriate native of that country; to my favorite of the bunch, character actor Patton Oswalt as the voice of Todd Maher, calling Walter throughout the film trying to help him set up a profile for a dating site. His voice is distinctive and quickly recognizable (granted, I watched this movie the same week I caught up with recent episodes of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, where he was guest-starring as the doomed caretaker of a secret military base). Shirley MacLaine (BEING THERE, 1979, DOWNTON ABBY, 2012-2013, and a bazillion other things) is also in it, and exudes confident motherhood as Walter’s mom Edna.

In later scenes Sean Penn’s photographer is an uber-cool, self-actualized (though eccentric) character. In these quieter moments in the film, Penn makes his photographer O’Connell both bigger-than-life and humble. Not an easy task. Stiller’s and Penn’s characters are extreme opposites in their personalities but the actors, and the script by Steve Conrad, make their reunion something special.

Finally, and most importantly, the movie is funny – the goofy, silly kind. It’s not always side-stitching comedy, but even when things were more serious I was smiling, because this is not a serious film. It’s a quirky, sweet, romantic movie with some amazing cinematography, enjoyable music (lots of classic pop songs used just enough to accentuate the effective – aka hardly noticeable as it does its job – score), decent special effects, and acting by a cast that seems to be having a great time.

If you like feel-good movies about the underdog finding his way in the world, even if it’s via exaggerated moments of folktale-like adventure, you’ll like WALTER MITTY. If you think there should be more prisons to house the poor, maybe skip this one. Overall, though, don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll be alright.

I give it four-and-a-half Potential Epileptics out of five.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

EQUILIBRIUM (2002)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, May 5, 2014

I was pleasantly surprised to discover this little-known science fiction film starring Christian Bale (the DARK KNIGHT trilogy of films, 2005 – 2012, TERMINATOR SALVATION, 2009) on Amazon Prime’s streaming service recently. EQUILIBRIUM (2002) takes place in a dystopian future where all emotions are outlawed in order to remove crime and violence from society. This is done with the help of a drug called Prozium, which every citizen must take on a daily basis. The laws are enforced by heavily-armed military personnel led by priest-like “clerics” who have been trained all their lives in a sort of hyper-martial arts. Their weapon of choice is usually a pair of automatic revolvers, and the occasional katana sword.

EQUILIBRIUM doesn’t try to hide its blending of two popular science fiction stories: THE MATRIX (1999) which had come out only three years before, and the 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (I mention the novel since, though the movie was fine, the novel still is far superior and one of my all-time favorites). Like the Bradbury book, there is an underground rebellion which hides itself on the outskirts of the city hoarding books and artwork, abstaining from the required daily dose of Prozium to live freely and emotionally. THE MATRIX’s influence is soon obvious in the way the clerics fight. There may not be slow-motion bullets flying, but the laws of physics are pretty much tossed to the wind. Regardless, it’s a visual treat. Like the grandfather of these styles of fight scenes, Asian martial arts films, they are a treat to watch, almost ballet-like. Ballet with bullets. And lots of blood.

Swan Lake danced amid a plethora of spent shell casings.

The films opens with Cleric Preston (Bale) and his partner Cleric Partridge (Sean Bean, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, 2001, GAME OF THRONES, 2011) wiping out a rebel hidey-hole, slaughtering everyone and burning their stash of books and art. Except this time, Bean’s Partridge pockets a book of poems (Yeats, I think), and Preston quickly realizes his partner has succumbed to his emotions and reluctantly does his duty, executing the man for the offense. Preston and Partridge were close friends—as close as one could get in a world without emotion, and this act starts the man on the path of questioning his duty, and the law. That, and the constant memory of how he earlier turned in his own wife to the authorities. He stops taking his drug, and soon discovers what experiencing true emotions feel like, embracing remorse for what he’s done to the two closest people in his life besides his children. Yes, he has two children, and it’s a clever bit of the plot I’ll leave for your own viewing.

Back to Sean Bean for a moment. I like to think of him as the 21st Century’s Charlton Heston (PLANET OF THE APES, 1968, OMEGA MAN, 1971), since he seems to always take roles in which he dies at the end. Here, he dies only seven minutes into the film. Even so, his intense, somber persona dominates the screen while he’s on it. I always look forward to his next film, curious how his character will next get bumped off.

I won’t get much more into the plot. If you’ve read Fahrenheit 451, where our hero Montag begins to question the law after burning a librarian alive with her books, you’ve got the gist of this film. Not that it’s a complete rehash, if anything it’s a loose remake, and it’s honestly a very enjoyable film. Everyone is somber and emotionless, which makes for a lot of mumbling and softly-spoken lines. Like I do (as you know if you’ve read my past reviews) with many British films, I ended up turning on the subtitles just to follow what people were saying. They’re not intrusive, and come in handy to understand the story as it unfolds.

The emotionless angle could also make for a slow movie, but there is quite a lot of action, murder and MATRIX-style fight scenes to keep those ADD viewers awake.

Writer/Director Kurt Wimmer (SALT, 2010, TOTAL RECALL, 2012) crafts some clever bits into the film and is not afraid to be subtle about them. For example, as Bale’s character begins to experience emotions for the first time, he is entranced by the textures under his fingertips (the escalator railing, table tops). This action, if you are watching carefully, is repeated by others who are supposedly mired in the drug’s emotionless effects themselves. These can act as background clues to later plot developments, a la Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) where many of the creepiest scenes take place in the background.

There is a subplot with Preston’s wife which I thought was a bit confusing, since a female character is introduced early in the film, then we never see her again, but we see his wife in prison later. I thought they were the same characters. But no. Once I realized it was his wife, things made more sense. Maybe I should have turned subtitles on earlier.

Some aspects of EQUILIBRIUM is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel FAHRENHEIT 451.

The supporting cast do well in their roles, from the requisite megalomaniac bad guy DuPont (Angus MacFayden, BRAVEHEART, 1995, WE BOUGHT A ZOO, 2011) and Preston’s new partner, the upwardly-mobile Brandt (Taye Diggs, PRIVATE PRACTICE TV Series, 2007-2013) whose weapon of choice is the above-mentioned katana sword. Cleric Preston tries to keep his growing emotional life secret, but it’s obvious from the start that Brandt isn’t buying it.

The climax is littered with bodies and some over-the-top battles, but by the time you reach this point you shouldn’t care about the laws of physics. Like THE MATRIX, the enjoyment is in the visual, not the realistic, experience. In the end, what you’ve seen is a modern, stylish take on some old, classic themes, which won’t leave you with any more insight into the human condition than you might have come into the film with, but you’ll have been entertained for an hour and a half with some controlled performances, clever directing and entertaining (if not a tad implausible) fight scenes.

I give EQUILIBRIUM three and a half burning librarians out of five.