Month: January 2014
“Nebraska” ****1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Written by: Bob Nelson
Directed by: Alexander Payne
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**
Have you ever driven through Nebraska? If not, I’ll illuminate the scenery for you. There’s a lot of corn. Not to disparage the Cornhusker State by any means, but if one were to choose a film to best represent the experience of driving through this land, I think many would begin by visualizing a black and white palate. I’m certain there is more to the state than that, but the experience of the film “Nebraska” is rather similar. On the surface, it’s a deliberate, uneventful film where not much actually happens, and the main character is a cranky geriatric. As he is wont to do, however, director Alexander Payne reveals to us yet again a brilliant, if understated underbelly to his film, resulting in another odd yet satisfying entry, deserving of its’ Oscar nod as one of the best of 2013.
Bruce Dern (yes that Bruce Dern) stars as Woody Grant, a retired and weary man who’s suddenly found a higher calling beyond frequent attempts to escape his nagging wife (June Squibb). Woody is caught, multiple times, trying to walk from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim what’s he believes is rightfully his- a million dollars. After all, the mail he received specifically names him, and says he’s already won. Most of us have been inundated with junk mail of the same sort that Woody receives, but he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) read the fine print. Even the protestations of his sons David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) can’t persuade Woody that his quest is for naught. However, David’s dead-end life brings him to a point where he decides, against reason, to take his father to Lincoln. After all, he might as well- nothing of importance is happening in his life, and he feels the need to give Woody something to look forward to, something to do.
Despite the film’s deliberate start, it reveals itself to be more than simply a road tale about a cranky old man and his son. On the way to Lincoln, they stop in Hawthorne, which happens to be Woody’s hometown. It gives them a chance to see some family, and Woody a chance to see his old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Despite his son’s plead not to, Woody spills the beans about his newfound “wealth”. Some pleasant souls in this town are genuinely pleased for Woody, and some, like Ed, line themselves up to pilfer him. At first the requests are polite, playing off Woody’s confused visage and advanced age, but as the buzz of his fortune spreads, they become more stern and threatening.
At this point in the film, though, the money becomes less the issue and shifts to who Woody really is. Is he the bumbling, cranky alcoholic from the first part of the film, or the exhausted, hard-working, good man who never said no to helping someone? The truth is that he’s all of those things. Woody is actually self-aware, and knows what he wants. He knows he’s made mistakes, and we see him flinch with shame when he’s reminded of his past. He also knows not to gloat when his big moment comes- and it does in the most sensible and satisfying way.
Payne has proven to be something of a savant when it comes to giving us films that require the audience to peel back layers for a deeper meaning. “Nebraska” is no different- slow to develop, but still crisply edited, crafty in its’ humor, and emotionally satisfying by the time credits roll. Bruce Dern is exceptional as a weary but sly senior and Will Forte is effective (for the first time in a dramatic role that I’m aware of) as a lonesome son. June Squibb, however, nearly steals the movie. Whether she’s scolding unscrupulous relatives, gracefully telling a white lie, or grounding the film with her hometown manner, it’s a revelatory, Oscar-worthy performance.
I’m aware that this type of film would have a difficult time garnering an audience, but “Nebraska” is the type of movie I wish more people saw- funny but not tugging the laughs out of the audience, satisfying while not feeling forced. There’s more grin-worthy moments in the last five minutes than most ‘blockbuster’ films offer in two hours. I imagine the next time I drive through the titular state I’ll think fondly of this film, and the landscape of corn will be far more bearable.
This is late, but in my defense, I did speak of this before the New Year arrived- except it was on the podcast I’m a part of (I Hate Critics, check it out on iTunes, this ends the shameless plug), and I hadn’t seen a number of 2013 releases by that time. The issue, of course, is that most award-worthy films are released late in the year, or early the following year. If you’re not a professional critic, it’s hard to actually see enough quality films to warrant a top 10. However, I technically saw over 10 quality movies, so I should have a Top 10 in theory. I’ve also included films I saw in 2014 that were 2013 releases. Missing from this list are likely favorites “American Hustle”, “Short Term 12”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, “Philomena”, “Blue Jasmine”, and other possibly good films that I just didn’t get to see.
Until the time comes (if it does) that I can see all the eligible films, this type of yearly review will have to do. As I think of these films, I realize I need to have more access to movies in 2014 to have a broader base for selection. One thing’s for sure: I saw more movies in 2013 than any other year, and I love it more than ever before. I thank all of you for your support over the past 8 months, and I look forward to discussing what movies I watch in the future.
Without further ado, the top 10 movies (that I saw) of 2013:
10. “The Conjuring”– What a welcome surprise this film was. A well-marketed, slickly made horror film that actually kept me tense the entire film. Not having any prior knowledge of the Warrens likely helped, as I went in to the film with a clean slate. “The Conjuring” is genuinely frightening at times, while never sliding into the “this is silly” territory. I mention this because nothing sincerely scares me in movies anymore, but this one had me tense from the beginning with the huge title and intense opening scene.
9. “Frozen”- Not since the early 1990’s has Disney (ignore the Pixar films) released a film with such heart and bold animation (with respect to “The Princess and the Frog”). On top of that, it’s funny in all of the appropriate moments, and creates a new memorable sidekick character in Olaf. The best part though? The two female leads resolve the story by relying on each other, and not a brawny male to save them. It’s a bold step, albeit a late one.
8. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”- As I stated in my review of this film, some that see this will interpret it cynically. After all, the product placement is heavy-handed I just happen to believe that Ben Stiller and crew did their best to make solid creative choices to appease both those that paid the bills for this film and those that saw it. The film itself is well-made, and provides an endearing portrait of a man who spaces out- not because he’s spacey, but because he’s been hard-wired to do the safe, uneventful thing. It may sound corny, but once Walter Mitty discovers how to live, he finally begins his life. With an excellent soundtrack, and a subtle tone, “Mitty” resonated with me.
7. “Nebraska”- Alexander Payne, director of the masterpiece “The Descendants” as well as “Sideways” and “Election”, gives us another oddball comedy with this film. It’s deliberate, but subtle and funny, and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The payoff is well worth the wait, as we discover the real soul of the film and of the leads. This film features Oscar-worthy performances from both Bruce Dern and June Squibb as an elder couple who are both more than their initial appearances suggest.
6. “Out Of The Furnace”- A tragedy in almost every sense, director Scott Cooper’s Appalachia-set film is equal parts moving and heartbreaking. It’s a movie about redemption, revenge, hard work, brotherhood, relationships, society, and masculinity as defined in our time, all rolled into a bravura man-opera. The performances are all top-notch, especially Casey Affleck as a veteran who can’t find his way, and Woody Harrelson (dare I say it) as an absolute psychopath.
5. “The Hunt”- Despite the international release of this Danish film in 2012, it didn’t see daylight in the U.S. until 2013, and thus is nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Academy Awards. It’s already taken home the top prizes in Denmark, and with good reason. Mads Mikkelsen is magnificent as a man who’s wrongly accused of pedophilia. He has to drum up the willpower to fight back a community that has not only painted him guilty, but earnestly tries to kill his spirit in the process. Powerful, maddening, and cringe-worthy, “The Hunt” deserved mention in the Best Picture category at the Oscars.
4. “Inside Llewyn Davis”- The Coen brothers struck gold again, this time with a soulful yet frustrating character study about a folk musician in 1960’s New York that can’t manage to stop metaphorically tripping over his own feet. There’s excellent, rich, quirky music throughout, quotable lines aplenty, and excellent performances abound, especially by Oscar Issac as Llewyn. How the Academy skipped over this for at least a Best Picture nod is beyond me.
3. “Gravity”- I’ll go ahead and nominate this as the film I’m most likely to watch multiple times from this list. Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi/action success story is, quite simply, more than a film- it’s an experience. Next month it will be available for purchase, and it will be interesting to see how the experience changes once it’s on the small screen. It can’t possibly generate the same feeling, but the film itself is nonetheless still powerful in how humble it presents humanity against the vastness of space and time.
2. “Before Midnight”- This one completely took me by surprise, as the original, “Before Sunrise” bored me at age 16, and I rented but never got around to the sequel “Before Sunset”. Every once in a while, though, listening to a movie critic’s advice can benefit you, as it did for me with the third film. Regardless of the assumed quality of the others, this is brilliant. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who both helped write the script) are excellent in depicting a couple who has reached a crossroad in their relationship. This movie treats love as a real, tangible thing that is shaped by experiences, hurt by wrongs, and gains strength over time. Director Richard Linklater loves these characters, as it shows on-screen. Not only is the romance in this film more believable than most love stories, but by proxy the fates of Jesse and Celine are more interesting, and we have more vested in them. It’s a crying shame that this wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but the nomination for Best Screenplay is a minor victory.
1. “Her”- Spike Jonze’s masterpiece of the human condition is the best film of the year. The interesting angle of being set in the near future, combined with the brilliant writing, heart and humor to make the most complete film I saw. It’s daring enough to pose risqué questions to the audience, and then seems to reveal the answers in touching, creative ways. It may be creepy to some, but it’s clear that we all need a connection, and how we get it seems to be changing over time. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking, one I hope everyone gets a chance to see.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver
Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
If you haven’t seen a Coen Brothers movie at this point, shame on you. While not all of their films are equally entertaining, they are all perfectly unique, yet the same. If that doesn’t make sense, consider it for another moment. From “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” to “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men”, as one fellow amateur critic put it, you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie, despite how different they may play. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is in the same vein, yet still manages to stand alone as a unique tale of a man who’s either a self-absorbed jerk or a supremely unlucky soul. The film makes no judgments of its’ own, and through its’ quirks and memorable dialogue, it stands as a supremely enjoyable, if not melancholy masterpiece.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) has an abundance of talent, evident from the opening scene as he performs a soulful folk scene. Unfortunately, he carries an abundance of arrogant negativity with him as well. After the opening number, bar owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella- Doogie Howser’s old buddy if you can recognize him) tells Llewyn that a friend wants to speak to him outside. This is no friend- the gruff man is angry about criticism Llewyn threw his wife’s way at an earlier time, and proceeds to beat Llewyn senseless. It’s a great tone-setter for the film, as we can sense Llewyn’s greatness with music and his propensity for poor social behavior in the same sequence.
That knack for paining others doesn’t stop there. Upon waking the following day, Llewyn manages to lock himself out of a friend’s apartment after mistakenly letting out the house tabby cat. Then he calls upon folk-singing ‘friends’ in Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Timberlake) to stash the cat while he takes care of business. The problem? Jean is none too happy with Llewyn for reasons I won’t reveal, and then he lets the cat escape out of their window. The same day, he upsets his sister after a brief visit. See a pattern yet?
Llewyn just can’t get out of anyone’s way, including himself. He’s without a partner (who appears to have killed himself without reason), without a permanent home, without a competent career plan or agent, and without a confidant. He has plenty of ‘acquaintances’, whom he calls upon to provide him with a couch to sleep on, but even they have become disillusioned with him. There are those that will see this film and feel sorry for Llewyn, and others who will feel he deserves what he gets. It’s hard to argue with either point of view, but here’s an alternate thought- he seems to meet everyone on their worst day. Could it be that Llewyn is just trapped in a vicious circle of self-doubt and bad timing, made worse by how callous he’s forced to become with everyone’s negativity towards him? I got the impression that the character means well, in all honesty- he’s just locked into a good run of bad luck.
I’ll try to illustrate my theory by describing a series of scenes in the latter half of the film. Llewyn has decided to make his own luck by hitching a ride to Chicago, whereupon he’ll meet Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), producer extraordinaire, who will realize his talent and make him a star. His companions for the trip are Roland Turner (Goodman) and Johnny Five (Hedlund), two more eccentric people Llewyn tangles with, and another cat. Llewyn ends up having to take the last leg of the trip on his own, even leaving the cat behind (it’s just another being he’ll let down, right?). Upon arrival in Chicago, it’s clear that despite the conditions he’s in, Llewyn is optimistic; he may not trust himself, but he trusts his talent. He meets Grossman, plays for him- and Bud isn’t interested. It’s not that Llewyn isn’t talented, which is clear, but as the man says, it won’t sell. I believe the film shows its’ soul in this scene. Llewyn croons with a purpose here, his entire career and life leading up to that moment, but that moment has already passed him by. It’s heartbreaking to watch, as Llewyn finally get his opportunity but cannot seize it. I loved how the camera slowly zoomed in on him while he played. It was as if we could, for that moment, dare I say, see ‘inside Llewyn Davis’.
Very few filmmakers are able to squeeze so much out of what might seem so simple, but the Coens are the masters. This is a flawless film for what it is- a multi-layered character study. On the surface, “Inside Llewyn Davis” may seem like a basic, quirky story about a few days in the life of a jerk. Digging deeper brings forth a different result- a portrayal of a man who’s been calloused by bad luck and what’s projected on to him by others. The cycle of unfortunate luck and choices for Llewyn just goes on and on, encapsulated by the final scene of the film. It’s a fitting ending for one of the best films of 2013, and we’re left to wonder if Llewyn will ever catch a break.
*Note- As before with the Coen’s “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, T. Bone Burnett is responsible for the music in the film. Once again, it’s a re-created piece of Americana that’s lost upon most of us, as it was in the early 1960’s before the arrival of Bob Dylan. My suggestion is to download or purchase the soundtrack to this film, spend some time with the music, and let your ears bathe in the soul of it.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” *** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad & David Koepp, Tom Clancy (characters)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**
It used to be that ‘origin’ stories were reserved for those in spandex. Now, any fictional character can get the reboot treatment, whether it’s Alex Cross, James Bond, or the late Tom Clancy’s recurring hero Jack Ryan. With classically trained British legend Kenneth Branagh at the helm and cutting his villain chops, and charismatic everyman Chris Pine taking the role, we should expect, at bare minimum, an efficient machine of a film. That’s exactly what “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is: formulaic, safe, but still fun and well-made, resulting in a middling-to-good action/espionage film reboot.
Four solid to very good films featuring the character were made before this, not to mention the multiple Tom Clancy novels written from 1984 to the present featuring the Jack Ryan character. It has always been a film franchise in a state of flux, however, with the lead never committing long-term, Paramount never quite satisfied with the middling-to-positive box office returns, and an inconsistent story line. With this reboot, they have a chance to start from scratch, and there is a plethora of rich source material to pluck ideas from (I enjoy the meticulously detailed Tom Clancy novels). Of course, it stands to reason that they would choose to film from an entirely original screenplay instead of adapting one of the novels. In a way, it makes sense, considering the novels describe Ryan’s history over various stories, with nothing concrete in the way of an origin.
It also stands to reason that an espionage film set after 2001 would have to take into account the heightened tension level in the intelligence community. Ergo, the creative decision is made to have the 9/11 attack be the onus for Jack Ryan joining the military, where he excels in seeing patterns develop, and being a leader. While rehabbing after his chopper goes down in the Afghan mountains (definitely a nod to the novels), he meets spirited medical resident Cathy Muller (Knightley), who seems to give him the “right motivation” to heal. Also scoping out Ryan is Thomas Harper (Costner), who gives him the extra push to finish his doctorate and go to work for the CIA as an analyst. Harper is the classic mentor character, something Costner is becoming more familiar with as he ages.
Of course, being an ‘analyst’ is rather vague, and we know that Jack is basically going to become a field agent- not just because we’re familiar with the character, but the plot needs him to be more than that. A lot more. We’re quickly shifted in the film to ten years after his rehab, and Jack’s living with Cathy (now a practicing physician), well-entrenched in Wall Street working for a firm, and in the thick of things as a CIA analyst. I guess we’ll have to assume that Jack and Cathy had a magical courtship, as the film doesn’t bother. Jack has done what he does best- discover a pattern, and a disturbing one at that- there are multiple hidden accounts with large dollar amounts belonging to a Russian corporation headed by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh). We know this is dirty money, because Branagh is a name actor, and thus his intentions must be evil.
Boy, are they. Almost to the point of overkill, the Jack Ryan novels are excellent at ‘raising the stakes’ of danger for the reader. There’s always a regime somewhere about to be overthrown, or a sinister terrorist plot, or a “sleeper cell” in a far-away country that needs to be taken out. Not much different here, but I won’t get into specifics for the purpose of keeping something under wraps. The idea is that the CIA, or the U.S. government, is always putting out a fire, whether it has started or not. Jack Ryan is the guy who sees the spark in these stories, or leads the charge to put it out. In keeping with the spirit of the novels, the film does do a good job of giving us a character that we’re familiar with. Those new to the story will at least be able to gather that Ryan is an ultra-bright, resourceful, kind, and valuable boy scout of a character. He’s the reluctant spy.
In essence, that’s what this film does well- it sets us up for future Jack Ryan outings by giving us an incredibly likable character played by an incredibly likable actor. It’s debatable whether or not we should buy into Chris Pine as a borderline tactical genius, even if he’s also Captain Kirk (which I don’t necessarily buy, either). I do buy him as a charismatic good man, though, which sells more movie tickets. Branagh does all he can to breathe some evil nuance into the Cherevin character, whose motivations are typical (he even sneaks in a “Mother Russia” for good measure). The one who seems out-of-place here is Keira Knightley; she’s a fine actress that I’ve enjoyed in many different roles, but something about her version of Cathy Muller (Ryan?) isn’t right. She’s just so lithe. Perhaps comparing her to Anne Archer’s take on the character isn’t the best idea, but I sensed someone like Rachel McAdams belonged in the role instead.
I sense there will always be a crowd for films like this- the international espionage thriller. I for one am a sucker for them (and an unabashed fan of the Ryan character), and even done half-heartedly (I’m looking at you, “The Bourne Legacy”) I’ll be inclined to enjoy them. When the stakes are higher, it lends a gravity to a film, and all of the Jack Ryan stories have that specific weight to them. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is not special by any means, and compared to the best in the franchise, “The Hunt For Red October”, it pales in comparison. You’ll have to suspend some disbelief to enjoy this film (how would the world NOT notice if Russia bought up all the U.S. currency and then dumped it right after a terrorist attack?). However, as an origin story/reboot/franchise starter, it’s effective enough in its’ mechanical nature to make me recommend it, based on the relative sharpness of the script, the decent action sequences, and in what it does best- exist as an international espionage film. People are constantly looking over their shoulders in this film, which is right at home in the genre, and a solid set up for the future.
“Lone Survivor” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch
Written by: Peter Berg (screenplay), Marcus Luttrell (book)
Directed by: Peter Berg
***CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD**
*Note- in the text of the following review, I will question the film’s depiction of military actions, from the perspective of a film fan and a citizen, not an expert on military operations or military life. I make a conscious effort to keep my politics out of my thoughts on films, and I hold a deep respect for military personnel, military families, and understand the need for occasionally extreme measures in the world we live in today- that doesn’t mean I’m going to take it easy on a movie.
I need to be upfront and admit that I’ve had a difficult time formulating a response to this film. On one hand, it was a very solid, albeit Hollywood-ized version of a true story. On the other hand, the actual true story was different in important ways, and finding out about the inaccuracies after seeing the film frustrated me to no end. I’m left feeling very neutral and blasé about the whole thing- for if it’s not real, does the film really honor those that lost their lives? Does it really show us the true nature of heroism if it’s partially fabricated? “Lone Survivor” works in some ways, but there is no getting around the cynical feeling that comes from knowing creative license has trumped the truth.
The film is based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s account of the events surrounding Operation Red Wings in 2005. As the film explains, this mission’s intent was specifically to assassinate Ahmad Shah, who was (is?) allegedly an Al Qaeda/Taliban general, responsible for multiple U.S. deaths, and was/is considered a generally abhorrent guy. The plan was to have a team infiltrate the camp where Shah was located by crossing the rough terrain of the Afghan mountains and take him out quietly. I like how the film takes its’ time showing the prelude to the chaos, which allows us to see how harsh the environment is in Afghanistan, and how difficult it must have been to navigate on foot as a foreigner. Also, the way the film sets up how this team clicks, or for that matter how all Navy SEALs click, was portrayed well. These men are put through so much mental and physical stress to become SEALs that it’s not at all surprising how close-knit these men are. They’re brothers through and through, and there was never a doubt about that.
I’m sure former and current military personnel would say that missions can be meticulously planned, but still go wrong due to unforeseen variables. “Lone Survivor” has just that type of variable in the form of goat farmers, who just happen to be wandering in the same area where the SEAL team is resting before carrying out their task. It seems innocent enough- until a Taliban communication device is found on one of them. It brings about a terrible dilemma- can these soldiers complete their mission independent of this threat, or do they have to break the rules of engagement to go forward? The decision they make decides the team’s fate and sets the stage for the rest of the film.
It can be assumed by his demeanor that the younger, sinister-looking farmer will go back to the village and tell Shahd’s men about the team. If he does, the mission is compromised- if the soldiers tie them to trees, it’s possible they’ll never be found, or eaten by wildlife. It’s an impossible decision, but one SEALs are trained to handle. I did wonder why there was even a discussion about the decision- after all, they’re robotic in their responses for a reason.
They choose humanely, and in doing so, must call off the mission and seek high ground for an extraction. Unfortunately, their super high-tech communications gear cannot muster a signal in the mountains, leaving the team isolated and vulnerable. It’s clear once team lead Mike Murphy (Kitsch) senses there’s a problem, that a gunfight is imminent. Up until this point in the film, I wasn’t really annoyed by anything- it was appropriately patriotic, feasibly real, and organized.
Once the fighting began, however, disbelief crept in. Sure, I bought the expertise of the SEALs, but as others have been keen to mention about the last half of the film, the body can only take so much. It’s hard to believe anyone, even the best of the best like SEALs, could absorb multiple gunshot wounds, and multiple falls upon sharp, jagged rocks, then keep fighting. Does SEAL training prepare individuals to do what seems like the impossible? I don’t have an issue suspending disbelief in the right situation, though, and when I finished, I accepted the film as a slightly overproduced, occasionally aggrandized version of a true story.
Then I read stuff. Specifically, I read a Slate.com story (which referenced the site OnViolence.com) that detailed what the inaccuracies of the film are. I understand why creative choices are sometimes made to dramatize true stories; what I can’t understand are conscious choices to make already brave individuals appear superhuman, and fabricate events that are already monumental. Director Peter Berg was quoted as saying “We never set out to do something non-Hollywood or Hollywood. We just literally told the story.” If they did just ‘tell the story’, why does the film depict Luttrell as flatlining as the film opens and closes, when the apparently reality was quite the opposite, per Luttrell? Why does the film invent an old Afghan villager that brings the news to the U.S. base that Marcus is hiding in one of their homes, when the truth is that U.S. forces found him while scouring the mountains? Why did the film invent the entire last battle sequence in said village? Why is that Luttrell was on set, moving the actors around to get them in more accurate positions according to the real event, yet he hasn’t said anything publicly about the fabrications?
I think I know the reason, and I feel sad for it. Films like “Act of Valor” and “Zero Dark Thirty” have been successful, in part for attempting to accurately reproduce the military experience on film. I haven’t seen either film, so I cannot comment on the quality of either, but I sense “Lone Survivor” is capitalizing on their success. Cynically, I can’t help but think that someone in charge of this project saw dollar signs, and those spoke much louder than giving a voice to this story, or a greater audience to help honor the fallen from this mission. Even Wal-Mart is selling a tie-in documentary about the life and times of Lieutenant Mike Murphy (not a bad thing, but it raises my skeptical flag). As a straight Hollywood film, this works just fine, but discovering the inaccuracies behind the final product disappointed me. I feel the true stories of our military heroes are perhaps more important, and thus should be depicted without grandiose creativity. It’s enough that they did what they did.
Again, the story itself is powerful and intense enough to hold our attention; exaggeration for dramatic purposes isn’t necessary, and could be considered harmful if you consider this film is honoring the sacrifice of these men. All things considered, wouldn’t the story of Operation Red Wings be served better as a documentary? It is, after all, a true story- something Hollywood always pays lip service to until it’s actually time to present it.
“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, and Sean Penn
Written by: Steve Conrad (screenplay), James Thurber (short story)
Directed by: Ben Stiller
It might be difficult for choosy audiences with cynical dispositions, but if we can look past the pesky product placement in “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty”, we’re left with one very, very good film. Ben Stiller, who usually seems to have little clue how to use his specific talents, gives his best performance to date in front of and behind the camera. This is a film that may not resemble the source material verbatim, but the spirit is clearly alive, with a few touches to modernize the idea. As a whole, it’s a sweet, confident, and poignant film that has a lot to say, but I think it speaks only to those willing to listen.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a negative asset manager for Life magazine- basically, his is the department responsible for bringing in and processing the film from the field that will go into the magazine (and by his ‘department’, I mean Walter and his assistant (Martinez) ). In essence, in the time Walter has worked at the publication, the very soul of the magazine has been processed on his watch. It’s prescient, that his seemingly simple position holds so much sway, but we’ll return to that idea.
His problem, it seems, is that he daydreams. Mind you, this isn’t the type of absent-mindedness that you or I take part in. Walter misses large chunks of actual time in his fantasy land, jolted back to reality by silence, love interests, or transition managers. In his escapes, Walter is well-traveled and mysterious, interesting and not invisible to others. He’s confident and allowed to pursue that which he wants. In other words, he’s the full version of himself. I like how this film pulls back the comedic reigns here- Stiller too often becomes, well, Stiller, and overdoses on the comedy. Here, the humor is subtle and fits the tone of the film. It also doesn’t pander, or make us feel sorry for Walter. There’s a very good reason his life is the way it is, and again, it’s presented without pretense.
I mentioned a transition manager, profiled in full douchebag by Adam Scott. Well, the print version of Life is going under in this film, and switching to an online format. Positions like Walter’s are likely to be eliminated, as well as accounting spots like the one Cheryl (Wiig) holds down. However, before the end, they want to send up one last issue, and long-time contributor Sean O’Connell (Penn), who has sent a roll of film containing an image he specifically wants to become the last cover. The problem is that Walter has either misplaced it, or it was lost along the way. This causes him to seek it out, thus finally spurring him to make his fantasies become, well, realities.
I think a good portion of society can identify with an individual that finally lets loose a bit, that allows himself, finally, the adventure he deserves. A lesser film would make these emotional breakthroughs farcical, ala “Last Holiday”, but this is subtle and decent. That’s why the big reveal of what that last cover image is a fantastic moment. I believed in this Walter Mitty as a hard-working guy who missed out on life thus far due to some bad luck. It was wonderfully refreshing to see a character, despite his quirks, find happiness in the midst of just being, well, a good guy.
I caution those looking simply for a pandering, feel-good story around the holidays. That’s not what this is. Instead, Stiller and crew have taken the spirit of the source material and adapted it to our world. Granted, there are a few goofs- for example, Walter seems keen on good rock music and skateboard culture, but he isn’t aware of a popular David Bowie song? Also, how does one get a clementine cake, sweet as it may be, through customs? Those things don’t doom the film, but I do feel it’s another reason this will divide people- those that claim this has nothing to offer but cynical product placement messages, and those like myself that sense a broader theme of becoming who we want to be, and understanding where we lose our way. That’s a powerful thought, and this quietly beautiful film has the sense to not beat us over the head with it. After all, the film does tell us that “beautiful things don’t ask for attention”. That’s certainly a statement that a number of filmmakers could stand to hear more often.
(The real magazine ceased publication in 2007- I imagine that its’ actual demise was slightly more morose than the film depicts. Despite this, I appreciated how the film weaved Walter’s personal journey with the magazine’s journey, creating a rather obvious love letter to the past while looking to the future.)