Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the tale of a dreamer, the title character who's mundane life and mild personality results in a habit where he escapes through daydreams into a parallel life of excitement, danger and romance in which he always says what he's thinking, saves the day, and gets the girl. But when the daydream ends he always finds himself back in lifeless reality, usually with people wondering what just happened. His episodes of zoning out are both the bane and the fuel of his life, so something's gotta give.

Which is worse? Daydreaming through life, or living in a dull cloud of routine?

That's when a work problem arises as a shipment of photos from a famous photographer arrives, containing a bunch of photos except the one meant to be used for the final cover of Life magazine. The photos are under Walter's care, and the most important one is missing. With his job at stake, and the girl he admires (Kristen Wiig) encouraging him, he takes a step from the mundane and into adventure yet again in search of the photo negative; but this time it's not a daydream.

But this is -- this definitely is!

There are many great things about this movie, but I think the main one is how deceptively simple it is. The theme is obvious, the tagline says it outright: "Stop dreaming. Start living." I don't know if the marketing was intentionally misleading, or if it just didn't occur to some people, but this movie is a lot greater than that one-size-fits-all inspirational quote. And it worked on me -- I was prepared for the one size theme, and a character whose arc goes traditionally; from timid loser to hero in two hours or less. And when the truth of the matter smacked me upside the head, I was impressed.

See, Walter Mitty was never mundane. He's a nice guy with an actual personality whose dull place in life was dictated by circumstances. He put his ambitions on hold until they were so far away they were forgotten, and he began to believe he was what he appeared to be. But he's not, or else he would have given up on that photo without even trying. This film doesn't show our hero becoming a new man, brave and adventurous, but simply rediscovering that that's who he's been all along.

On that note: Ben Stiller has never been more personable.

The tagline tries to tell us that dreaming is the problem, but it's not true. Walter's excessive dreaming distanced him from people and exposed him to ridicule, but daydreaming didn't cause his mundane life, it was only the result of it. And as the film rolls on, we see more and more how it was a greater benefit to him than a hindrance. Ultimately, dreaming gives him the courage he needs that leads to his not living in the imaginary or the mundane anymore.

So that's the picture I drew from it anyway. Now on to the framing, which does its job of showing off and complementing the work of art wonderfully. And this is another example of the deceptively simple nature of the film. The plot was simply and neatly woven, was more or less predictable throughout, (but without losing interest) and moved along at a leisurely pace. Then it would slide effortlessly into a moment, straightforward, and profound or inspiring, or just simply beautiful -- for no other reason than that's just what it is.

I'm not saying he's crazy, but someone's crazy, and it's not the people in the boat... or the helicopter.

As an artist I appreciated the artistic themes, from the plot revolving around an elusive perfect photo, to the celebration of the imagination, to the well-placed musical interludes. The locations were just beautiful, and the cinematography used them to the full advantage. And there was an old-fashioned, vintage feel that seeped in (through the film's being based on a 1939 short story) and gave everything a sense of value. I also loved the overall colorful brightness of the film. Tinting and coloring is often overdone, and typically the more it's used the more personality the movie loses, but I've finally witnessed it's proper use, and it enhances the film just like it should.

The overall feel is light, and there were even several places that warranted a good chuckle. The drama never got melodramatic, but was always just there, honest and coming out of good, solid, simple performances. Cheesiness was saved for the moments of over-the-top, action-filled daydreams, where it actually does good amongst the fantastic, ridiculous silliness. Turns out Walter Mitty's secret life was just that -- not imaginary, or impossible, just a well-kept secret, and when it is revealed for all to see, we see, perhaps, something similar to secrets we've been keeping too.

I think this movie needs a new tagline.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Minor spoilers throughout. Major spoilers have a warning.

Here we go again. This sequel to a reboot not unexpectedly feels very familiar; a different version of a story we've seen many times before. Parts from our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man's last movie are even reiterated just in case you're clueless as to the origin story of Spider-Man (as if!) rendering the last movie all but unnecessary. And we are subjected yet again to Spidey's worries that the people of NYC don't appreciate him, that he is constantly putting his girl in danger, and that he won't be able to keep his secret. However, the fact that we've seen it before is the only thing making it slightly tiresome, because it is done with more grace than ever. And there's more here than just reiteration, and a lot of it is unexpected. Unexpected and good.

Nice view. But I'd still be worried about falling without my web-shooters.

Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker's energy, charm and likability continue to be unending. He is what makes these movies worthwhile. Snarky and hip, yet understanding, and his heroism is fully fledged. He's just as likely to help a kid being pestered by bullies as he is to do something to garner fame and attention. I realize the kid was little more than a ploy to make us see how sweet Spidey is, but come on; he was adorable, introducing himself like that. He knows he's needed and can no more resist lending a helping-web than he can resist his beautiful, sassy girl, Gwen. He and Emma Stone are so natural together that during some of their scenes of playful, intimate banter, I got a distinct impression of being a third wheel and thought that I should probably leave them alone.

I wonder if they banter like that in real life...

Ever since I saw him in the trailer I knew Dane DeHaan's Harry would be the highlight of this movie, and I was right. DeHaan's fantastic, detailed style of acting is one you'd usually find in indie films, and it sets him apart. His intricate performance was bursting -- begging for more screen-time, and not only made him perfectly believable as the bitter, neglected son of an extremely cold and even more wealthy man, but makes us understand his conflict, and be involved in his development. All without being bashed over the head with the information via the script -- simply paying attention reveals it naturally.

Then he abruptly becomes the Green Goblin, and from there the comic style of the movie worked against him. The villain side would work better as a more subtly and darkly crazy, rather than a cackling villain typical of cheesy superhero flicks and episodes of Phineas and Ferb. Fortunately, his time spent cackling was limited, giving plenty of opportunity for the character to be molded to DeHaan's better abilities for later. (I hope I'm not assuming too much thinking he'll return? Obviously he needs to.)

"Isn't that the question of the day."

Then there's the big villain, Electro. Jamie Foxx's performance is of course great, before and after being superpowered. But the after is the real him; the before is just teasing us for the main event, and when it comes, then he is complete. He rocks the villainous monologues, the maniacal cackle -- or crackle in his case -- and the glowing blue skin, and is over-the-top and out-of-this world. But his origin story and motivations are as cliche as cliche gets, and therefore I hardly cared one way or another about him once he made the unbelievable leap from mild mannered and invisible to fantastic, vengeful and electric.

Electro and Harry both have what the other lacks. It was all motivation and development for Harry, (up to a point) and it was brilliant, but he wasn't able to cut loose; for Electro, his ability to cut loose and embrace the insanity so confidently was his storyline's saving grace.

Other fun but less involved additions to the cast include Chris Cooper as Norman Osbourne, Paul Giamatti obviously having fun as a crazy Russian who loves crashing into things, Felicity Jones as a sly young lady named Felicia. And I happily assume the latter will be showing her face again. And apparently B.J. Novak's small part was a comic villain as well. I wonder if number three will be even more baddie-packed than this one. They might just be able to get away with it; they managed the number in this one unexpectedly well.

(Major Spoilers!)
A certain person's dying was sadly not very sad, even though I didn't expect it to really happen. I'm mostly just surprised because of the great chemistry Gwen and Peter had, and I wonder how the void will fill with her gone. (Maybe they'll let Shailene Woodley be Mary Jane after all.) The foreshadowing was so obvious that I figured it was just a big bluff to mess with us, so the whole scene went by before I believed it, and by then it was too late to be moved. So it was my bad, not the film's. A sucker punch would've perhaps been more effective at manipulating emotions, but honestly the better way was the way we witnessed -- contrived, but the considerate, tasteful way.
(End spoilers)

Wow, I haven't put any pics of the suit yet. So here we go.

The movie pops and sparkles (sometimes literally when Electro's on screen) with superpowered effects as Spidey swings and fights and saves people at the last second with the flashiest style we've seen yet. If any movies should be in 3D, it's these ones. And the way they show off the Spidey-sense -- with slow-motion, showing us what he sees in a split second, then going back and letting us see how he handles it -- I enjoyed that very much, particularly the first time it happens.

It was pretty jumbled at times, like debris was flying around and falling into random scenes trying to pull it all together, but really it didn't bother me. It was fun that way; it felt upbeat that way; and even though it was too long, it didn't feel too long. And I have to think to remember flaws instead of them sticking out obviously. It stands alone capably, has enough heart for a superhero movie, is full of talented, entertaining performances, and does what it's meant to do. I'm surprised to say this, but it is more its own, and therefore better than the first one. Color me... pleasantly shocked. So, when's the third one coming?

One more for good measure, and because it's a fun one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Like Crazy

It's a classic tale: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl's complete lack of self-control, and overwhelming need of controlling selfishness causes them to be separated, and puts their relationship on a rocky, one and a half hour melodramatic ride.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones two great actors, and two of three reasons why I watched this movie.

Anna (Felicity Jones) is British, in L.A. to go to college, where she meets Jacob (Anton Yelchin). They fall in love. They cuddle a lot. He, a furniture designer, makes her a chair. She, a writer, writes him poems. They would be "that couple" whose PDA makes everyone else around them uncomfortable -- if they ever hung out with anyone else. (PG-13 level inappropriate content is infused throughout the movie, as you may expect.) And then they graduate, and she has to go back to England. Except they cannot bear to be separated, so, she doesn't. She stays with him all summer, until she flies over for a week and her friend's wedding, and then flies straight back. And that's when those pesky customs people won't let her through security because she overstayed her visa last time. Whoops. Cue many lingering shots of two depressed, lonely faces, thousands of miles apart.

The fact that they're sitting apart in this picture is nothing short of miracle. They were like magnets.

Of course the movie isn't the two of them pining for each other the whole time -- although sometimes it seems like it is. I took it all as a cautionary tale; a list of things you should not do once you found the person you think you're going to spend the rest of your life with. In fact I'm having a hard time thinking of anything these two did right. Their selfishness and impatience caused nothing but heartache (for more than themselves I may add) and it was a little unsettling, because it was so realistic.

And that unsettling, realistic feeling, for better or for worse, was enhanced greatly the performances. Both the characters seem like really nice, likeable people. They're actually likeable throughout the movie, though they do many dis-likeable things. The acting really is very good, and without Yelchin and Jones playing the characters, I probably wouldn't have managed to watch the whole thing (actually I wouldn't have started it in the first place). Oh, and there's also Jennifer Lawrence in a small portion of the movie. Now you know all three reasons why I wanted to see this. And because of those three, I don't regret seeing it either -- if they didn't make it enjoyable in a happy sense of the word, they at least made it interesting, and very, very well acted.

Just because my choices of pictures imply it, there were actually very few scenes on the beach... everything else these photos imply is accurate.

And I guess it's not completely unthinkable that this may be enjoyable as a romance for someone, I mean there's lots of romance -- shallow, sappy, selfish romance, but people do seem to like that occasionally; look at Romeo and Juliet. Less people die in Like Crazy, so I guess that's good for them, but then again, Romeo and Juliet is considerably more poetic, and a Shakespeare classic, so really there's no point in comparing them... except to prove that Like Crazy is supposed to be a romance, and I think that's done. Moving on.

Actually I guess that's it. This movie was very successful and making not much content be interesting with character study; teaches a lesson that I already knew, but teaches it very well anyway; and was made with thoughtfulness, and just as much care as its characters were careless. And while it's by no means a feel-good romantic movie, I wouldn't say either that it was at all bad -- artistically at least. And I finally understand the title (I thought I did before, but I actually do now) because those two kids were, like, crazy.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Upcoming Movie Roundup - May

Look out: here come the first round of the summer blockbusters!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
May 2nd: PG-13
I admit: I'm a little worried about the villain count in this movie. Did no one learn anything from Maguire's Spider-Man 3? Well, hopefully they learned a lot, and the overwhelming amount of baddies is the only thing being repeated. This one has so much more potential anyway because I actually like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Plus more bad guys and other characters means more cool actors to play them, like Jamie Foxx, who appears to be the main villain, and Paul Giamatti, and Dane DeHaan, who I've never watched before, but already love his version of Harry, and Felicity Jones, B.J. Novak, and Celeborn; Marton Csokas. Yep, by the reviews I've seen so far this doesn't live up to what we've come to expect from our superhero movies, but I doubt I'll have a hard time finding a few things to enjoy.

May 16th; PG-13
I feel like I've seen this before... Well, the monster looks impressive, but it doesn't look like there's a guarantee of anything more than that that the version with Matthew Broderick didn't give besides being newer and therefore cooler and more expensive. Or maybe I'm missing the appeal. The main appeal for me is that Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are starring -- it's kinda like a preview for Age of Ultron!

X-Men: Days of Future Past
May 23rd; PG-13
Well obviously this is a must-see. X-Men and the young X-Men "reboot" come together in a complicated, the-fate-of-the-earth-in-the-balance plot? Sounds a lot like Doctor Who meets superheroes, so count me in! Plus, with the best of the two casts added together, I don't think I've ever seen the likes of these huge names together before: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy AND Patrick Stewart, and Michael Fassbender AND Ian McKellen. And then of course Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and lots and lots of recognizable faces. And I did mention Jennifer Lawrence, right? Yeah. It would take a lot to makes this not be an awesome success.

May 30th; PG-13
Sleeping Beauty gets the "Wicked" treatment? The trailer implies that the baddie, played by Anelina Jolie, isn't so bad after all, which isn't exactly something I'm super interested to see. It looks epic and pretty (or awesome) and promises a deeper plot with conspiracies, and lots at steak. And they obviously had a great time updating the possibly-not-evil-after-all lady. But in too many ways I'm reminded of Snow White and the Hunstman. Will this be the new take on a classic fairytale that finally meets with success? The most drawing thing for me is the talented Elle Fanning as Aurora.

The summer movie season begins! So what is first on your to-see list?