The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty ***

walter-mitty

The new Forrest Gump this is not, in terms of an iconic screen character, but actor-director Ben Stiller’s remake of the James Thurber classic 1947 short, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty has some life-assessing moments, some of which you may be stirred into making. In that sense, it has a poignant and ‘inspiring’ legacy that rings more true in these gloomy days of austerity. Indeed, Stiller is a family favourite and guarantees a degree of endearing and modest entertainment value too.

Average, single Walter Mitty (Stiller juggling lead role as well as directing) is a hardworking stills library researcher at Life magazine who has a habit of zoning out and having fantastical daydreams. When his job is put on the line through a digital revamp of the magazine, led by ignorant hatchet man Ted Hendricks (a delightfully spiteful Adam Scott), and egged on by potential love interest and finance colleague Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), Mitty’s daydreams become reality. His quest is to find a lost negative sent in by famous photographer Sean O’Connell (a Zen Sean Penn), said to be ‘the quintessence of life’, that will take pride of place on the last edition of Life magazine.

This is a situation where a film’s trailer sells quite a different kind of film. Indeed, to appeal to the usual Stiller audience, a degree of this is necessary. The actor is known for comedy roles and this is where any misconceptions could understandably happen. Hence, tonally, the film feels uneven, with the first half almost undermining the life-affirming sentiments of the latter and moving ending. Stiller places us in a false sense of security to begin with, with the greatest intention perhaps. He also confusingly blends fantasy and reality to the extent that Mitty’s encounter with a shark feels totally implausible. This is either more expertly seamless than the original film or subversively muddled in execution (the jury’s still out here).

Naturally, the most enjoyable parts of the film are where Mitty starts ‘living’ without fantasyland, with Stiller’s rather indulgent Icelandic scenery awakening the adventurer spirit in any of us. There are moments of being at the whim of the director’s own fantasies being played out (and ego to boot). Nevertheless, it’s perhaps the chance of escapism to places that most will never get to and being in obscure and exciting situations that really sell the film’s promise, regardless of any expectant Stiller affability.

There are also some nice if fleeting moments to savour from supporting cast members Wigg, Penn and Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s slightly scatty mother, Edna. Penn makes another snatch bid for sex symbol status as brooding, deep-thinking, creative O’Connell on a mountainside. However, it’s Stiller’s championing of the ‘ordinary man’ on a serious note that keeps things very much grounded. In addition, the film challenges the changing working landscape due to the rapid advancement of technology and human expendability, where time-consuming, artful practices are becoming obsolete that resonate the loudest here.

Walter Mitty promises a bit of everything for the family appetite this festive season, but be prepared for it altering the goalposts between comedy classic of the Stiller variety and action-drama that some might find patchy to reconcile. The danger is the detail being skimmed over in parts as you try to find its comfortable grove. That said, you do get there in the end after quite a picturesque journey, with the last scene definitely hitting home with a nostalgic and gloriously triumphant air punch.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: All Is Lost ****

all-is-lost

A film without dialogue is unusual in this day and age. A survival film with an older protagonist is even more so. JC Chandor’s ocean drama, All Is Lost is so simple in its execution that is offers its 77-year-old star Robert Redford a blank canvas to show off his exceptional acting talents at this stage in his long career. His reactions to the harsh situation seem underplayed and realistic, without an ounce of melodrama. Without dialogue we focus solely on these so that every move appears significant. In fact it’s like watching the star himself in an own private moment, battling the elements.

A man (Redford) wakes up on his yacht in the Sumatra Straits, near the Indian Ocean to find his hull pierced by a floating container. So begins the drama that sees him fighting the elements alone in a bid to stay alive.

Perhaps the most fascinating and intriguing way is how matter-of-factly the story unfolds. The man is unfazed by the initial realisation and pragmatic in response. Chandor’s film creates a more natural state of affairs, without the need for inducing any hint of panic through overreaction or musical accompaniment either to heighten the senses. Curiosity is pricked and we are hooked as to how the rest of the 106-minute run-time will pan out. All we know is a vague suggestion from the title that things must develop for the worse. The rest is a tense waiting game born through our own imaginations.

Redford is supremely captivating as the sailor; we sense his every emotion as though telepathically in tune. There are moments of great physical strength coupled with mental ones that it’s hard not to admire the investment the actor has made. He keeps his character unremarkable and so doing, we can relate to his ‘average man’ in a tough environment who makes mistakes as well as finds solutions. Chandor keeps the camera at a respectable distance in the cramped location to allow the man space to figure out the next move.

At the end of the film, there is a huge amount of respect for the character that rewards our own investment. Chandor’s All Is Lost is actually a very interactive experience in fact without the viewer realising from the comfort of his/her own seat, and is one of the triumphs of LFF 2013.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues ****

Anchorman-2

Some might argue, why do another Anchorman film, given the low takings of the first back in 2004 (around $90 million mark)? The chauvinist, un-PC news dinosaur that is perfectly-coiffured newsreader Ron Burgundy – played by Will Ferrell – surely has said everything he needs to say back then. And if you didn’t like what he had to say, then this film is not going to bring you back to the cinema in a hurry.

However, the key difference this time is the commentary on the mushrooming growth of 24-hour news services from the 1980s to now that has left us with channels upon channels of (sometimes meaningless) content, and in particular, certain stations that make news out of a paper bag opening. This is where Ferrell-McKay’s sequel is pure genius in the comedy stakes, with an almighty end battle to gleefully relish.

Burgundy should have left Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) to the bears in the first film as she gets a coveted TV position, leaving him unable to continue their relationship. As time passes, amusement park worker Burgundy gets a call out of the blue in the knick of time from a producer of a new 24-hour news station in New York, inviting him to host the graveyard slot. Burgundy rounds up his former news crew, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and Champ Kind (David Koechner) with hilarious and risqué effect. But can he beat smooth archrival Jack Lime (James Marsden) in the ratings war?

Fans of the first film will be delivered more of the same this time around as the writing team give nods to past events and gags. Where as the first film seemed to be a mouthpiece for Ferrell’s outrageous lead character, shooting off where and when, this time there is more purpose disguised under the utter lunacy. It is essentially bonkers fun – just watching the first scene makes you wonder exactly where the story is going and it’s as far-fetched as can be imagined.

The two hours do seem to fly by when you’re having fun and allow yourself to be submerged in the stupidity. However, this is not without a tad of lag, for example, the uncomfortable dinner table scene when Ferrell is given carte blanche to peddle every racist black pun, plus the real purpose of the ferocious first scene dragged out in a reunion story that has moments of amusement but gets a little tedious in the end.

Ferrell is just as loveably idiotic and entertaining as Burgundy, and there are some nice confrontations as 70s meets 80s boardroom thinking and the advent of sexual and racial equality in the workplace. The Burgundy crew do much the same, with the most memorable being Carell’s Brick who has an insane ‘banter’ going with an equally socially challenged colleague and love interest, Chani, played by ‘comedy flavour of the moment’ Kristen Wiig. That said Brick’s character still delivers some hilarious solo turns, including being introduced to chromakeying.

The headline is: Anchorman 2 has all the ingredients for a daft night out, but you do have to surrender your brain and go with it. Certainly, you don’t have to have experienced working in a newsroom – but it helps. Nevertheless, everyone must have an opinion on the plethora of infuriating TV channels available, as well as being tuned into YouTube for the funniest videos that go viral. It’s these current, social issues that Anchorman 2 really ties in nicely with the comedy, and that’s why Burgundy is still a legend needed to subtly mock our reliance on 24-hour content. There could certainly be a later Anchorman film that targets the online/social media addiction…

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ****

the-hobbit2

The second film in The Hobbit trilogy was always going to have its work cut out to be a worthy piece of cinema in its own right, with Peter Jackson and team trying to give the fans what they want, while keeping focus and excitement brewing for the finale, There And Back Again next year. Jackson seems to have achieved the latter with some white-knuckle action moments and a world of imagination in The Desolation of Smaug. Indeed, it picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off and is always going to be seem as elaborate ‘padding’, but it’s watchable padding all the same that holds the attention.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest to reach Erebor, the dwarf homeland, and reclaim it from Smaug, a dragon that ferociously defends their inheritance. Along the way they get unexpected help from elf and man alike, making new allies in the fight against growing evil.

This film is very much a Bilbo showcase of bravery, with Freeman gurning in defiant mood as the diminutive hero, with a little help from his ‘precious’ ring. His is the only character development evident in the second film, what with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) very much out of the picture fighting his own sorcery battles. The dwarves are more of a collective team effort in this or ‘fighting troop’, with a smaller, standout role for Kili (Aidan Turner) to highlight the introduction of elf warrior beauty Tauriel (played with grace and confidence by Evangeline Lilly) who in turn gives back-story to Orlando Bloom’s Legolas character (who is featured very sparingly here).

That said there are a lot of thrills to be had with the film’s action sequences, including a white-water-barrelling escape from Rivendell/Misty Mountains. The dragon confrontation at the end also looks golden and sumptuous on screen, with echoes of Aliens/Terminator combat tactics to enjoy. What is lacking in individual film story arc is very much made up in design and imagination, energised by an ever-present tension. Those who are a tad arachnophobic may be wise to shut their eyes tight in one scene in the forest as the multiple-legged monsters send chills up your spine.

Overall, Smaug is a vast improvement on the first film that was very touch and go; tedious at the start in the Baggins abode and desperately relying on the orc battle scenes to bring us back to the table. Thankfully, bloated bit and artistic story licence aside, we are plunged into the journey and the action in this film that it satisfies and gets us in place for the concluding episode, rather than wallowing in character development perhaps? Nevertheless, a little more – or further – introduction would have been welcome so that we really do know what makes our heroes and their allies’ collaborations tick in the ultimate battle ahead. It is the stuff of big-screen Tolkien though, with much to feast on.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Nebraska *****

nebraska

Descendants director Alexander Payne has created such a powerhouse of a film in Nebraska that focuses the attention fully on the trials and tribulations of one family teetering on the brink of collapse, exquisitely shot in black-and-white. This intriguing monotone choice highlights the despair and humdrum at the start, but curiously sharpens the senses along the way, conjuring bursts of uplifting colour at the end in the mind when things are on the path of resolution for the discontented but utterly charming characters.

Booze-addled and aging head of a grown-up family of two sons, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he has won the lottery, and ventures forth on the highways of Montana to Nebraska (the lottery office’s HQ) to claim his prize, a million-dollar sweepstake. His estranged but loyal son David (Will Forte) always comes to bring him home from the authorities to his mother, Woody’s nagging wife, Kate (June Squibb). However, Woody is so convinced that he has won a prize, David decides to indulge his fantasy and drive him there. The pair takes a road trip that is also a momentous journey for the whole family, with a few home truths surfacing, and new bonds made.

Dern and Forte are superb in this as the embattled father and son, both forever miscommunicating but persisting nevertheless, because there is the underlying bond of love, whether it’s easily reciprocated or not. Cannes winner Dern’s grizzled and embittered Woody has moments of joviality and juvenile revival, especially when he returns to his hometown near Nebraska as local hero. It’s a heartbreaking and poignant cry for help too, in not wanting to fade away in one’s winter years. Dern brings a warming and infectious spirit to Woody, all utterly compelling to watch within the framing of the stunning cinematography from Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants).

However, the show-stopping scene is Squibb at her finest who speaks her mind as Kate with such blunt determination that it’s a triumphant turning point and delightful to watch – expletives and all. The character is out of the picture most of the film but is the passive-aggressive force that’s needed to shake the Grant male population into action, and wake them from their mundane acceptance.

Payne has created a fascinating character-driven film, with a near old-school Hollywood candour to it, as its characters lay bare their emotions. It has a humble reverence too; part in thanks to its warts-and-all revelations and character flaws, translatable whoever the audience is. Nebraska is one of the quiet and confident successes of BFI LFF 2013, and it’s not surprising there is Oscar talk.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Kill Your Darlings ***

kill your darlings

You don’t have to know anything about poet Allen Ginsberg to appreciate the rocky path to notoriety Kill Your Darlings portrays, and this is more ‘murder-he-wrote’ in a crime caper way, with the culprit already known. What is acknowledged is how Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe is forever recreating himself from the child role he will be forever known for, playing the gifted and gullible Ginsberg. The poet lives by the pen in this, as we fully appreciate the creative young blood’s craving for uniqueness and full of student ideals. It’s another thrilling performance from Radcliffe, though controversial for some fans – think Equus.

After a murder in 1944 in New York, the great poets of the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), react to the fallout that concerns their complex but charismatic friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

This has the same hungry adventure and free will running through it as, say, Dead Poets Society (1989) or the more recent The Social Network (2010), where young and privileged minds are engaged and active for experimentation, coming up against the usual engrained institutional practices. Radcliffe fully embodies young Ginsberg and his passion for writing and living in the moment. Foster is utterly exquisite as the eccentric Burroughs, mumbling away in a conceited manner. However, the enigma is Chronicle’s DeHaan who plays out Carr’s internal struggles with a tour de force in this, captivating the screen with his steely gaze, and making Carr a man of bewitching stature.

This cerebral script could be accused of being a trifle self-indulgent from co-writer and debut director John Krokidas, a sort of personal achievement and study of the indulgences and work of this key generation. His passion gets embroiled in the wordy dialogue, though his cast is fascinating to watch, as is the consequences of youth thinking they are invincible. There is always a healthy, looming doom present, however upbeat the circumstances with its boisterous college partying. It’s the impending hangover to the party of all parties, and that chilling momentum is what drives film.

Radcliffe plays a key role as Ginsberg, but is never placed on a waiting podium of awe by Krokidas – he keeps his characters crashing back to earth as much as possible. However, for some, even the chance of seeing the Harry Potter actor flex his acting muscles again could prove challenging, especially as the director is forever keen to bathe us in poetry and the razzmatazz of the scene.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Powder Room ***

powder-room

The term ‘ladette’ is out-modish but once upon a time would have been apt in describing the female characters in debut director M.J. Delaney’s new Brit chick flick, Powder Room. All-female comedy has come a long way since, without the need for a weepy romantic bit. This is a cack-handed confidence boost in the guise of an upfront, no-frills drama, set in (and out) of a girls’ nightclub loo.

Sam (Sheridan Smith) is invited out with an old college friend, Michelle (Kate Nash) and her friend, Jess (Oona Chaplin) to a local dive of a South London nightclub. Glamorous Michelle and Jess seem to have it all, living and working in Paris. Keen to improve her lot in the world, Sam pretends she’s more than she is, not wanting to appear that she’s not made much of her life since studying. All goes to plan until Sam’s night begins to unravel with hilarious and disastrous consequences, beginning with a red wine stain on the bottom of her jeans, to trying to avoid her uncouth friends, Chanel (Jamie Winstone), Paigne (Riann Steele) and Saskia (Sarah Hoare).

The film hangs together nicely, thanks to Smith’s solid central performance. Smith has a natural affable appeal that makes you trust her explicitly, even playing such a flawed character, which helps drive the narrative. That said there is some top talent for her to playfully bounce off, from the likes of Nash, Chaplin, Winstone, plus a great comic rapport between Steele and Hoare. Delaney’s respect for her actors’ abilities shows in their faith in and input into the material as they each try to make their character as genuine as possible, however ridiculous the situation. Hence, there is empathy and knowing nods at some of the bog rituals ladies get up to.

Nevertheless, the script lets things down by being overly staged at times – being an adaptation of the play, When Women Wee, with some of the dialogue a tad forced (and not very realistic), almost hungry for laughs at times. However, Smith’s knack for comedy and her whole witty demeanour exactly capture the mood of the moment, making up for any shortcomings and setting the status quo back on track.

Delaney’s production style is snappy and energetic, giving the film a vibrant appeal, hiking up the tension and winding down the tempo accordingly – check out Paigne and Saskia’s claustrophobic MDMA-fuelled cubicle scene. The editing pace again compensates for some stop-and-starts, script-wise, when the chat feels less than unconvincing.

Powder Room harnesses some refreshing female comedic talent, all witnessed by the toilet attendant (newcomer Johnnie Fiori) who ends the night on a high, soulful note – much like any Saturday night sing-song in the loo when inhibitions crumble. Delaney’s directing now needs some equally fresh writing to really shine.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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