31 December 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

(Dir: Ben Stiller, 2013)

Comedic actors have a greater tendency than most to become tiresome when they play what is in essence the same role over and over. Take someone like Ben Stiller. In earlier films he was fun to watch but now his presence has become a reason to avoid a film. That is unless he steps a little out of the undemanding comfort zone to do something more interesting, which in comedic actor terms usually translates to dramatic. Let's call it doing a Truman Burbank, as Jim Carrey so superbly exemplified. Now that's not to say The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is any sort of stretch for Stiller, but it's a pleasing change of pace.

The character of Walter Mitty, a name synonymous with daydreaming since the original short story was published many many years ago, is a quiet, still man who is lost in the world. A man afraid to take what is in his grasp who instead finds satisfaction in daydreams where he can become the man he wants to be. Stiller, when not playing the fool, has the ability to exude an everyman quality that makes him both believable and likeable. But at the same time you know he is capable of taking those first steps to improving his life and when he does here it's so wholly satisfying that it warms the heart. The film is perhaps walking a dangerous line between seeming corny and inspiring and you're as liable to perceive it either way. But perhaps I could empathise.

This seizing of the day takes Walter to some cold but highly photogenic places, all of which inevitably look stunning and impart the sense of adventure. But there's also a clean aesthetic to the look of New York and a desire to capture the essence of film based photography and what Life magazine was about. The use of Life as the backbone for Walter's working existence and springboard for his adventure grounds everything with a feeling of purpose. It's a part of the historical cultural landscape after all. The film also benefits greatly from the romantic angle not being overplayed. Kristen Wiig's Cheryl is genuinely nice and the way the two engage continually feels sweet as everything is played at the pace of Walter's nervous uncertainty. It never oversteps.

The balance of drama to comedy is well judged too, with the laughs mostly stemming from the outlandish, effects heavy daydreams. Yet despite their over the top nature they're revealing enough to allow us to empathise. It's fair to say Stiller has done a decent job in the directors chair to make this all work. It's also the most I've enjoyed watching him on screen in quite some time - he just works as Walter. I liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a lot more than I was expecting. Perhaps it caught me at the right time but the inspirational nature of the story and the sweetness at it's core are quietly affecting if not occasionally rousing. At another time I might've been more dismissive, but there's something to it and that is easily embraceable.

30 December 2013

Short review: All Is Lost

(Dir: J.C. Chandor, 2013)

In the last twelve months there have been three films focusing on a single character stranded away from humanity. All Is Lost happens to be the best. Life of Pi bored with it's prolonged boy vs tiger nothingness and oppressive piety. Gravity managed to impart the sense of true isolation but in a scenario forever alien to anyone watching. Both relied on stunning visuals to tell and carry the story. All Is Lost feels rooted in a reality a long way from the fantastical and that makes it a more powerful watch. The man in this situation is more logical in his approach, maybe because he's better equipped, but he rarely shows fear or frustration and is able to improvise accordingly. This feels like a lesson in what you should do if ever lost out at sea.

Of course the real anchor is Robert Redford. He carries the film superbly in a near wordless role, dealing with the hand he's been dealt and coping as best he can. He's eminently watchable and helps ensure the film never drags or feels stretched out. The way it's shot enhances the feeling that this could happen to anybody and the storm scenes are gripping, edge of your seat stuff, whilst the loneliness and foolhardiness of heading out into the ocean alone ripples throughout, along with a sense of futility. The narrative never veers off course or gives cause to extrapolate on the man beyond what survival necessitates, meaning All Is Lost never loses itself or feels like it's overdoing things. This is a superbly crafted film that's a great watch from start to finish.

29 December 2013

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

(Dir: Adam McKay, 2013)

Let's get this out of the way from the start - Anchorman is the most overrated comedy of the century so far. That's not to say I dislike it or don't find it funny, I'd describe it as fairly funny and reasonably entertaining. It's certainly not the exemplar of 21st century comedy that many hold it up to be and I find the praise lavishly laid at it's feet to be pretty inexplicable. This is one of the most subjective genres after all. When it comes to comedy Will Ferrell doesn't seem to have too many strings to his bow, like Ben Stiller, Jack Black or Adam Sandler. They each seem to have one character they play, just with a different name, set of clothes and scenario in each film. It's variations on a rigid theme and when those characters are only so-so from the get go, it's easy to tire of them very quickly. Ferrell's Ron Burgundy is very much cut of this cloth.

This style of comedic characterisation, playing the likes of Ron Burgundy as the dumb, brash, narcissistic buffoon, has been done so much better in the past. There's no subtlety to a character like this, everything is forced or shouted and exists only on the surface. If we want depth we should look elsewhere. If we want variety, well we have his news crew to provide that and they almost always outshine. Steve Carrell's Brick takes dumbness to a point of interesting, willful obfuscation and Paul Rudd's Brian Fantana may seem like a single-minded lothario, but Rudd is always able to exude charm in the characters he plays. David Kirchner's Champ Kind rarely works however, just seeming too awkward. Burgundy is easily over-shadowed in this company as he's just not that funny. In fact he's pretty tiresome, regardless of how many of his phrases have entered the modern lexicon.

The setting of the Anchorman films is a strength as the seventies newsroom offers up the potential for much interest, yet it never feels fully exploited. In the first film this leads to a slightly awkward misogynistic angle to the story, which fits into the context of the era and setting, but are we supposed to find some of this stuff funny or just pathetic? The sequel has moved on from this and instead throws up casual racism which sits really uneasily and the only explanation for this seems to be that Burgundy is just an idiot. This should've been excised as it has no place. But then so should've a lot of elements of the sequel as it more than outstays it's welcome. A meandering story is not helped by nonsense like the incredibly unfunny lighthouse sequence. In a film like this less would definitely have been more.

If the first Anchorman is an OK film, the sequel is decidedly average. There are far fewer actual funny moments and many more misses, whilst it just plods on for too long. Inevitably the side men shine again, as do the cameos, but Ron Burgundy remains a tired and uncreative character that never needed to be brought out of retirement. Admittedly I find Will Ferrell to be a mostly uninspired, generic comedian who is at his best in films like Stranger Than Fiction where there's a sense of thoughtful creativity. If you loved the first Anchorman chances are you'll like this one a lot too, probably just not as much though.

16 December 2013

Short review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

(Dir: Francis Lawrence, 2013)

It should come as no surprise that Catching Fire is a better film than the first Hunger Games. What is a surprise is that both of these films have been so damn entertaining. Where The Hunger Games succeeds over other teenage franchises is ideas - there is something going on here that's interesting and almost adult in nature. There's also a whole lot of world-building to be done in the great tradition of science fiction, which this seems to borderline be, and a central conceit that although essentially ripped off from the book / film Battle Royale, works by adding a different cultural spin that feels more relatable to modern times, even if that twist itself has been riffed on for many years. Catching Fire should be a better film as the hard-work establishing everything has been done, so a more developed story can now (in theory) be told.

Whereas in the first film the world-building and preparation was fascinating whilst the games themselves were a somewhat frustratingly drawn out toothless experience, Catching Fire ends up in the reverse position. The weak point of this film is the touring of the "special" couple and the flaccid romance between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it comes alive again as soon as the prospect of a new games is upon us with a focus on politics and who can or can't be trusted. These games are instantly more interesting with a better premise and a touch more menace, with foes who actually seem like they might be dangerous. Also helping greatly are Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who gets a decent amount of time to snarl, and Philip Seymour Hoffman proving why he is an asset to every film he appears in. Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson remain likeable even if Katniss' brooding negativity gets annoying. At least we continue to have a strong female lead and the romance side of things is downplayed in the second half.

Catching Fire offers another couple hours decent entertainment and like the first film, I'm left wanting to know where this is all going. It may end suddenly but it probably happens at about the right point, and at least the film gets better as it progresses. There really is a lot of story potential here, but having heard from multiple sources what a mess the final book is, perhaps it's right to not hold out any hope for the last two films being as enjoyable.

15 December 2013

Review: Oldboy

(Dir: Spike Lee, 2013)

Considering the reverence with which the original Oldboy is (justifiably) viewed, it'd be so very easy to get into a debate about the merits or otherwise of remaking foreign language films for Western audiences. But that's a tired debate. What is instead worth considering is when a genuinely creative and interesting director decides they want to take on a remake. That gives cause to pay attention and maybe expect a little more. Spike Lee may no longer be quite the visionary he was twenty or so years ago, but his presence always offered hope that Oldboy 2013 might have something to offer beyond tiresome retread. In fact this might've been a remake I'd have otherwise made no effort to watch had he not been involved.

On the one hand it's pleasing to say that Lee hasn't exactly screwed things up, but on the other, I can't see a single improvement in the vision he offers. The original Korean version is an unremittingly dark film, not just in the ideas it has, but in the execution. At times it feels like crawling along the floor of hell in a suffocating shroud of uncertainty. This is one of the appealing aspects of the film. Lee crafts a film that hints at darkness but it never feels insidious - perhaps that's one of the problems of a safe-seeming American setting compared to culturally alien climes. Josh Brolin's Joe is an extremely flawed man, someone needing redemption and direction, but his flaws are excessively hammered home. Brolin plays him well, but there's something almost too obvious about his character, almost as if he's written and played by numbers, a far far cry from Min-sik Choi's masterful performance. In fact the same rings true for almost all the characters. Elizabeth Olson, confident but dark past - perfunctory. Sharlto Copley, strange accent and near farcical awkwardness - a rote eccentricity. Samuel L. Jackson, mean son of a bitch with crazy hair - another variation of angry Jackson. Yet weirdly none detract. It's that kind of film.

In essence, almost everything from the original seems to be in place, but none of it works as well. Most notably the final denouement, which in the original is a savage multi-layered sucker-punch of epic proportions. Yet the remake decides to pare this down to not only be far less complicated and lose some of the point of it all, but when revealing the whole "process" makes far less sense due to too much reliance on chance. Not to mention that Copley's Adrian doesn't convince at all, a much lesser villain than Ji-tai Yu's Woo-jin Lee. For anyone who has seen the original none of this will generate the same reaction, but for those new to the story it will certainly have an impact. Again the same can be said when comparing the corridor fight sequence, one of the most iconic scenes from the original. There it's a realistically brutal and impressively staged fight in one continuous and beautifully tracked shot. This new version seems badly choreographed and lacking menace, like a dated action sequence. Symptomatic of the whole production really.

The remake of Oldboy could have honestly been made by anyone, with Lee failing to leave his fingerprints on it at all, which is a shame, but possibly the result of such strong source material. He seems to place more focus on why this is a flawed man who could be incarcerated for so long and lingers on his time there. Thus the quote "You can't find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions" seems apt. Yet it's a strangely enjoyable film despite it's numerous flaws and it's interesting to see how it has been reinterpreted to be American. This is a film probably best watched without any knowledge of the original, yet I would never ever recommend anyone watch this version first - to do so would be to rob them of one of the most jarring and darkly thought-provoking films of the century so far. Stick to the original, treat this as just a curiosity.