Monday, 23 December 2013

The Secret Life of Ben Stiller

Contains a hell of a lot of spoilers, including the end, but personally I don't think it's the kind of film that has spoilers or can be spoiled. It's up to you though

When I first discovered that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, which was only shortly before I went to see the current version of the film starring Ben Stiller, I was a little bit worried. After all Danny Kaye is a legend and Ben Stiller... Well... He is the guy who nailed that last nail on the coffin of my respect for Robert De Niro’s acting career. 

Unlike most, I find the Blue Steel and Magnum looks of Derek Zoolander, like many of Stiller’s other characters, a poor imitation of Jim Carrey, whose talent is much closer to Kaye’s league. Unsurprisingly, Carrey was considered for the role of new Walter Mitty in the past. It is rare that Ben Stiller tones down his acting a little and plays a more subtle and gentle character, like Tug Speedman in the excellent Tropic Thunder which he also directed, but when he does he is delightful to watch, still not in the same level as Carrey, but much better than his usual self. 

Not wanting to have any preconception about Walter Mitty and his secret life, I decided to watch the Danny Kaye film only after I saw the current one, the trailer for which looked most promising.

Based on the short story by James Thurber rather than the old film and quite befittingly, the updated version of Walter Mitty (Stiller) works in the negative assets department of LIFE magazine. While he daydreams of heroism and romance with his co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kirsten Wiig), in reality his job and hers are in danger following the cuts as LIFE magazine goes online. For the perfect last cover, Walter is trusted with a frame by old-school-wow-factor photographer and adventurer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Conory), but when the all-important frame gets lost, it is time for Walter to take action.

While Danny Kay’s film is a wonderful Hitchcockian comedy, in which Walter Mitty stumbles into adventure, the Ben Stiller film is a more lyrical, life affirming drama in which Mitty takes action into his own hands. If anything, this version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds me more of Paul Anderson's superb film Punch Drunk Love, starring yet another more talented actor from Stiller's generation, Adam Sandler. Of course, the films are completely different, but I was reminded of the Anderson films because both films have a strong visual sense, in Anderson's film supported by excellent soundtrack too, which illustrates the main character's internal world. In addition both films showcase a unique character that is non-typical to the actor portraying them and exposes another side, in Stiller's case a better side, to the one we're used to seeing them in.

Perhaps what impressed me most about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is how captivating it was and without Stiller’s regular enforcement ensemble, usually made of better actors than him (Dodgball and Tropic Thunder I’m looking at you, yes I’m also nodding at your direction Zoolander...). Not this time. Here, Stiller cannot rely on anyone else and he finally shows the kind of sincerity and tenderness that were missing from his previous acting and which allows him to carry the film on his own and become a compelling and loveable lead rather than the annoying side character one has to endure to enjoy Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson. Even in his extreme daydream, which could have been the natural place for Stiller to go back to his old tricks and he did get close to it in his Benjamin Button type of dream, but it was so random, weird and funny that I had to love it. However, mostly Stiller maintains a poised and gentle character in his Walter Mitty and for the first time I could say not only that I loved a film he was in, but that I actually loved Ben Stiller in it. Not that the rest of cast weren’t excellent, particularly the fantastic Adam Scott as the vexing Ted Hendrciks, “manager of the transition”, but in the end this is Ben Stiller’s film and he owns it.

With the help of Director of Photography, Stuart Dryburgh and Production Designer, Jeff Mann and with great sensitivity, Ben Stiller creates a beautiful world, which stretches both reality and the imagination. Echoing the visual signature of LIFE magazine, the film’s visuality (come on someone must make this a word already), in glorious 2D, is enchanting and it reinforces the photojournalism look and feel associated with “LIFE”, appropriately chosen as Mitty's workplace for its name, but also for its known visual style and images. The choice of an old school film negative adds a romantic quality as well as give it a reflective element. The film is so stunningly beautiful and immersive that I blurted out an incredibly girly scream at a crucial moment despite knowing what was coming. I’m pretty sure I won’t be invited to the next “cool film critics club”, but it serves as a proof that the power of great visuality is greater than that of an extra, non-existing. dimensions.

If there is one complaint I would make about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty it would be about its ending. Unlike in the Danny Kaye film, here I didn’t want Walter to get the girl. I felt it was more important that he found happiness, confidence, came out victorious at his workplace and of course met Todd and in a way getting the girl at the end almost took away from the impact of all that has changed in him. At least that’s how I felt to begin with, as I finished watching, but as time passed I found that the happy romance feels right after all, it is true to the character and true to the film. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Boxing Day
Rated: PG
Running time: 114mins
Based on a story by: Thruber
Screenplay: Steve Conrad 
Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kirsten Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn

Sunday, 15 December 2013

An Unexpected Hobbit

There was a time, I remember, when I quite liked the famous J.R.R Tolkien ring related books. While they were not as influential as the Sherlock Holmes books were for me, they were very enjoyable and fun to read. I liked getting lost in what I pictured was Middle Earth, before it became New Zealand and very different from my, slightly wilder than NZ tourism publicity office, imagination. 

There's something about fantasy films based on fantasy books that's just never worked for me, as I discovered the first time my blood boiled with fury at watching The Never Ending story, where the fat annoying kid that was Bastian turned into the cute Hollywood version kid that played him in the film. The Never Ending Story film has completely ignored everything that was important to me in that wonderful book.

True, I love The Princess Bride, though I didn’t read the book, but generally I tend to prefer fantasy films that are independent to books like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and Ladyhawke, which build their own world within the film, more than book based films. Fantasy films are limited and force reality on the fantasy and so ground it, whereas in a book you are free to imagine Harmione Granger's hair a lot more messy and unruly and her character less preachy for example, or Bilbo Baggins as a slightly less cute and more selfish fella than Martin Freeman, who I adore, but isn't really my Bilbo.  

And what is this trend of making film serials in a random order of things? The Harry Potter series at least gets points for sticking to the order of books, and if there's anything remotely good one can volunteer about the travesty that is the Star Wars prequels, is that at least most human characters from what I like to refer to as the original Star Wars, were not required, apart from Obi-Wan, who was young enough to be played by another actor. Peter Jackson's attempts to immortalise his actors by turning back time, though interesting and perhaps endearing, mostly fail. No matter how white Mr. Orlando Bloom bleaches his hair, he cannot distract me from the fact that unlike his character, Legalos, he is a mere mortal and looks nothing like the Legalos of The Lord of the Rings series and definitely not a younger version of him. 

You probably have already guessed that I am not exactly a fan of The Lord of The Rings film series or The Hobbit ones that followed. But my problems with those films is a bit more complicated than the grounding of the fantasy, the random order choices or the money milking of this old and shrivelled udders cow. But these issues definitely don’t encourage my sympathy for this franchise. 

The first three Lord of the Rings films have merged in my head into one very long and quite blurry film,  involving some Hobbits, dwarves and some rings or one ring, I’m not entirely sure. None of the film stood out or made an impression, the CGI looked bad and there was a hell of a lot of walking in what looked like what might be lovely holiday resorts with some nice hiking treks. Everything else, why was it up to the uninteresting, pale Frodo, rather than the clearly more capable Gandolf, or even Legalos, to carry the ring, clearly it had the same effect over him as anyone. Or what is the story of the fellowship and its very forgettable members. While it all may have been in the films clearly it wasn’t as important as all the walking to have created a lasting impact.

And I'd like to take a moment to explain my grievance with all the walking and the endless scenery shots of New Zealand, because I found myself in this argument many times and not many people understand my complaints about beautiful landscape and scenery images. And I don't want anyone, particularly not Peter Jackson, to think that I have anything against New Zealand. It looks lovely and it brought us Flight of the Conchords, what's not to love? My problem is with the insane amount of scenery shots which has no purpose other than advertise NZ and to be honest, I much prefer to go there and see it for myself than have it shoved into me in a fantasy film disguise. I thought Middle Earth is an imaginary place, not somewhere I can book a flight to. 

Moreover, I am a strong endorser of the idea that location is as important as characters and story, it has to be significant and contribute to the the story, if not play a character in it. There's nothing in the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit films to suggests this and only this is Middle Earth. There are better mountains in the Alps or Tibet, there are better forests in America, there's a Jungle in South America more suited, in my opinion, to The Hobbit story than New Zealand. Yes NZ is wonderful and it is great that Peter Jackson has put it on the map and helped its economy, I'm sure tourism is now like it's never been, but how does NZ contributed to the story? What is its character? Middle Earth has a character in the books, that is why The Silmarillion was written and if anything it will be comprised of many different parts of the world.

In comparison, Lawrence of Arabia, four hours of walking in the desert, sounds off-putting to me on paper, but there is not one minute or one shot of desert I would drop from this film. The scenery is so effective, so much a part of the film it's in its title. Another example is Ingmar Bergman, who used landscapes to express emotions. Whereas in Lord of the Ring, the scenery is just there to be walked in and admired. 
Following all the love for the series by most people who are not me, the great anticipation for the upcoming Hobbit film, the promising cast and the fact that I loved Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I thought I’ll try and give the first trilogy another go. After surviving the fellowship and the towers I have come to the conclusion that life is too short to lose yet another three hours of this. After watching two of these films twice I still can’t say why they were so long and what happened in them other than a lot more of the walking, maybe a little bit of running or marching and some repeatedly uttering of “precious, my precious”. Seriously, can someone please explain to me what happens in these nine hour between the picking up of the ring, the founding of a fellowship and throwing the ring into the abyss? And why did it take three films of three hours each to tell that story? 

Then came The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out and while with the Lord of the Rings I could just not like it quietly, this time I was furious! It started when I first heard this tiny book will become three long films, but when I heard it will include new found material and perhaps The Silmarillion (how is that at all possible is beyond me) I was wiling to allow it. But then I watched it and I wrote an angry post about it too. Nevertheless here are my thoughts again.

I was going to skip my usual rant about 3D this time, but given how much noise these 48FPH (frame per second) made I feel like I must make some noise about how awful it was. Let me ask this, if one is going to make a new, promise to be amazing and solve all previous problems, 3D film why not make sure all or at least most big cinema can and will actually show the film correctly??? Alas it seems most cinemas, including the BFI IMAX did not screen the film in the speed it was meant to be in, therefore instead of shiny new 3D that would blow my mind, I got to see a 169 minutes of what look like it was filmed on a mobile phone, and not even a particularly good one. And as for making the film in 3D, as always, there’s no reason and no use of the 3D. In fact, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, with the glasses on, looks like a 2D film that occasionally remembers its dubious third dimension and sends an object or an insect in the viewers direction. At the risk of sounding like an old broken record, it breaks my heart that this disgusting greed forces these 3D films on us.

But back to The Hobbit 1, it’s just easier that way, the atrocity that was this film’s 3D wasn’t even the worst crime of this film. The worst crime of the film against the book and its biggest problem is that despite its title, The Hobbit is not Bilbo Baggins’ story. It is the story of the dwarves, maybe a little bit Gandalf's and Thorin's, in which Bilbo Baggins is not but a sidekick, an active one, but still only a sidekick. This is completely not within the character or even the story of the book, which is all about Bilbo.  If this the result of this mysterious new found material, perhaps it was best to leave it unfound.

Bilbo’s story or not, the film is mostly boring. With a few funny and lovely moments, mainly Sylvester McCoy as Radagast, I had to look the name up I never remember the names in all these mass characters’ films, and the conversation of Bilbo, finally Bilbo got some interesting action, with Gollum. Indeed there was another scene in the middle with a troll or some kind of creature who had a tiny and funny helper and if I’m not mistaken through the blurry visuals I may have spotted a huge ball sack, but that might my be dirty mind, either way it wasn't the scene that was memorable. To get to these rare precious moments one had to get through what was a lot of painfully long nothing culminating in a beautiful but essentially empty scene of everyone flying on top of giant birds.

My final grievance with the first Hobbit film is, and this is blasphemy even in my eyes but I must get it of my chest, is with Martin Freeman. I absolutely adore Martin Freeman, I think he’s an exceptionally talented actor and I would even watch silly films like, Nativity, to see him doing some acting. Therefore it saddens me greatly to say that he was actually better in Nativity than he was in The Hobbit, where like another talented actor, Hugh Grant, yes I think Hugh Grant is a fantastic actor whose talent has often been wasted on the wrong films, just watch American Dreamz or Small Time Crooks if you don’t believe me, ends up playing the preferred American version of the British man, and one I can’t stand, the quiet and shy guy who takes up to ten minutes to form a sentence and everything happens to him. While this might fit the idea of a Hobbit, I don't think it is the book's Bilbo. To me Bilbo Baggins was, as I mentioned, a lot more mischievous, moany, far more selfish and occasionally close to being evil, well, perhaps not evil, but definitely devious, that's what was so good about his character, he wasn't as noble as everyone around him. And so Martin Freeman becomes this cute guy, he always is, with his The Office puppy eyes, who simply doesn’t do it for me, not in The Office either, he's the kind of character I get bored with quite quickly and that’s a real shame.

With all that in mind and my general fury with the current Tolkein industy, I went to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or as I prefer to call it, The Hobbit 2. As I mentioned before the 3D was beyond pointless, but moving on from that, I am happy to report that so far of ALL of the Tolkein based films it is my favourite. It doesn’t mean much considering all I have just written, but it’s a start.

The film still suffers from some of the same problems as the first one, it is still not Bilbo’s film and he’s barely even in it for a large part of it. One of the Dwarves Kili, look I remembered the name, has more of a story, though be it a cheesy one, than Bilbo for Jackson’s sake. It is still unclear to me what is it this secret material Jackson was talking about and how it became three very long films and I still think it's only a mediocre film, but this mediocrity is definitely a step up.

This Hobbit film doesn’t have as many funny moments as the first film at least not for me, but there were a few people who laughed when I didn't. For example, Sylvester McCoy’s character, who was funny mainly because of its first, unexpected, appearance, has now lost its charm and one wonders why he is in the film at all. Let it be know that I do love Sylvester McCoy, but I prefer him to be used as a character rather than as a prop. But for the price of a few funny moments we get a tighter film with more content, excellent action, less walking and a brilliant scene between Bilbo and Smaug, I wouldn’t expect any less when Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are together, even if one is a very well made CGI dragon.

More importantly, when the film does get a little funny, cause it is not completely without humour, it is so because of Martin Freeman, who FINALLY gets to showcase his fantastic comic timing. Indeed Martin Freeman, when he gets the chance, and sadly it really is not often enough in this film, FINALLY shines and he is wonderful just as I know he can be. And there are glimpses of how Bilbo was portrayed in the book. No more a stuttering idiot that everything happens to him, but rather a little bit more naughty and schemey.

I'm not entirely sure about the Bard story and whether it was necessary, nor am I convinced about the necessity of Stephen Fry's Character and his sidekick, you must be mad to think I'll be able to remember their names or try and find them in the endless IMDB list, look it up! It was also still to long a film, but nevertheless an improvement and I even enjoyed some of it.