The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Saving Mr. Banks
American Hustle &
December 26, 2013
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (***) PG
Opening Dec. 25th in Hickory.
I know for sure that somewhere along the way I’ve read James Thurber’s story that the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based upon but it’s been such a long time that I honestly can’t recall much of that story’s content. Still, I’m pretty sure that it didn’t include the title character of Mitty daydreaming of scuffling with his boss in the streets of NYC, with a late 1970s vintage Stretch Armstrong doll being used as the centerpiece of a tug of war between the two men. I’ll go out on a limb and say that there’s probably little of Thurber’s story in the second—the first was in 1947 and starred Danny Kaye—screen adaptation of his story as it is readily apparent writer Steve Conrad has taken great liberties in scripting this latest version.
Sometimes SLOWM works and sometimes it falls flat. I would say that the film passes muster far more often than it should simply on the strength of director/star Ben Stiller’s inspired directorial choices. Stiller exhibits an interesting visual flair here, aided by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, that I don’t recall in his earlier efforts as a director, although it may be that the material in Stiller’s other directorial efforts simply didn’t call for the kind of visual pizazz that he brings to the table here.
Ben Stiller, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The sequences depicting Mitty’s daydreams really pop and are some of the best things in the film. It’s only when Mitty stops daydreaming and decides to become a part of reality that the film begins to run afoul and starts to resemble a PBS styled travelogue.
The plot of SLOWM is set in the offices of Life Magazine where 42-year old Walter Mitty (Stiller) spends his days trapped in a hum-drum existence, all the while daydreaming about how exciting his life could be if only he had the courage to take a step forward. Life Magazine is being taken over by a media conglomerate headed by corporate honcho, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), who plans to kill Life’s monthly print edition and axe a good number of employees in the process.
Mitty secretly pines for his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) but is afraid to approach her in person, opting instead to connect with her on E-Harmony. At the same time he finally works up the courage to talk to Cheryl, he is tasked with finding the perfect photo for the final issue of Life. This sends him on a trip to both Greenland and Afghanistan in search of the magazine’s illusive photographer (Sean Penn) in order to fulfill his mission. Along the way Mitty gets to experience the adventures he’s denied himself for too long in the real world.
The film really is a mixed bag. The scenes where Mitty travels abroad feel out of sync with the rest of the proceedings and don’t really work. Still, the film really scores best when dealing with Mitty and his life in NYC as he daydreams his life away and pines for Cheryl. It’s the human element that comes shining through in these sequences and saves the film.
Saving Mr. Banks (** 1/2)
For some strange reason, studios seem to be really interested in dramatizing the behind the scenes goings involved in the creation of classic films. Last fall saw the big screen pic Hitchcock, which supposedly offered viewers a peek at the making of the 1960 film Psycho. Now we have Saving Mr. Banks, which relates the tale of Walt Disney’s torturous attempt to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen after pestering the book’s author, P.L. Travers, for two decades in order to get his desired result. With studios pumping out these types of films on a regular basis during awards season, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see a dramatization of the making of The Godfather come next fall.
If one were going to compare apples to oranges, I would say that Saving Mr. Banks is a superior film to last year’s Hitchcock, a film whose screen story felt way too fabricated for my tastes. That’s not to say that Saving Mr. Banks is a true-life version of events but, for my money, it felt much more rooted in reality than Hitchcock.
Hanks & Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Having said that, I’m still well aware that Saving Mr. Banks probably bears as much resemblance to reality as Mary Poppins did. The film, as it is, offers both a lively performance from Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and a moving scene here and there to keep the audience emotionally invested. I particularly liked the emotion-packed ending, which worked splendidly, and there are other memorable scenes during the film’s 120 minute running time that helped to make up for its numerous shortcomings.
In the opening scenes and for much of the film, author P.L. Travers (Thompson) is portrayed as a crotchety fifty-something year old who has no intention of letting Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) monkey around with her beloved book, Mary Poppins. She has resisted Disney’s efforts to turn her property into a movie for twenty years and is only now relenting due to financial needs. Travers finally agrees to come out to Los Angeles where she is confronted with culture shock, among other things, but is quickly befriended by her assigned driver (Paul Giamatti). The film then attempts to dramatize the creative process involved in the scripting and songwriting phase as Disney’s famed tunesmiths, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) crank out songs, while scriptwriter Don Dagradi (Bradley Whitford) attempts to come up with a script that will satisfy the always hard to please Travers. Of course, the outcome of things is never in doubt.
The thing that almost singlehandedly manages to sink the film are the flashbacks involving Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). Just when the film manages to generate interest, those pesky and leaden flashbacks appear and manage to grind everything to a screeching halt in numerous instances. The film works best when dealing with the machinations involved in getting Mary Poppins to the screen and should have kept its attention there. As it stands, Saving Mr. Banks works in some instances but not enough for a wholehearted recommendation.
American Hustle (***) R
David O’ Russell’s third film in four years, American Hustle, is certainly nothing to take lightly, but if you’re expecting a Scorsese-esque take on the late 1970s Abscam scandal, you’re going to be in for a big surprise. Although Russell’s film does exhibit some of Scorsese’s visual flair from time to time, the film is mostly content to coast along on the performances of its admittedly impressive cast, as opposed to bludgeoning the audience over the head with cinematic pyrotechnics that are on display in the film’s enticing trailer. All of these performances are quite good, although some are more vibrant than others. It’s a good thing, because without those great acting set pieces, what we are left with is the film’s meandering plot, which takes far longer to reach its destination than it should. Still, make no mistake about it, American Hustle does have lots to offer discriminating movie fans and fits nicely in the pantheon of director Russell’s previous work.
The film is narrated in flashback by a character going by the name of Irving Rosenfeld and portrayed by Christian Bale. Rosenfeld is slovenly—a pot belly is displayed prominently in more than one scene—and Bale physically gives it his all.
Bradley Cooper & Christian Bale in American Hustle
The film opens as we see Irving attempting some sort of hideous comb-over and plotting his latest scam. Via flashback, we discover how Irving met his partner in crime, Sydney (Amy Adams), and found himself assisting FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in his attempts to nail supposedly crooked government officials. Before long the mob gets involved, along with New Jersey politico, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who just wants to rebuild Atlantic City and remake it as an east coast Vegas.
One of the most interesting things about the film is the character dynamics, much of it of a romantic nature. Irving, in spite of already being attached to the loud-mouthed, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), finds himself smitten with the beautiful Sydney. Richie, in spite of having a fiancée, also finds himself attracted to Rosalyn. Sydney just wants to better herself and, as she puts it, to be ‘anyone other than who she is.’ The quest for fulfillment, both of a romantic nature and a monetary one, forms the basis for many of the choices the characters in the film ultimately make.
There is much to like about American Hustle but I do have to quibble with the film’s relaxed nature. For much of the running time, I felt that there was a lack of a sense of urgency in the proceedings. There are times when the film just came across as needing a shot of adrenaline to put things on edge. It’s funny and exciting at times and offers much
to embrace, particularly those performances which will surely be remembered come awards time. It’s just not the home run that I was expecting after months of anticipation.
Anchorman 2 (**) PG-13
I won’t go so far as to say Will Ferrell has no talent. His impressions of Neil Diamond, among many other things, were spot-on back in the heady days of his time on SNL, illuminating the comic’s definitive set of comedic chops. He’s also proven himself to be adept in the more serious side of film as well, as witnessed by his 2006 effort, Stranger Than Fiction. There he was surrounded by first-rate actors and behind the scenes talent.
It’s when he insists on teaming up with his frequent collaborator, Adam McKay, that the train always seems to run out of steam long before reaching its destination. Most of his output with McKay at the helm consists of nothing more than a half dozen or so good jokes strung out over the course of a feature length film. This is not necessarily the recipe for a good film.
The original Anchorman, released nine (!) years ago, was one of those atypical, McKay-Ferrell collaborations that looked good on paper and a concept that probably even sounded interesting when read aloud.
Rudd, Ferrell, Koechner & Carell in Anchorman 2
The experience of seeing the film didn’t take long to reveal the film’s shortcomings.
Outside of the novelty of seeing a 1970s era news anchor going through his paces, and roughly half a dozen or so gags that elicited genuine laughs, there wasn’t much to recommend it.
So now we have the belated sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, taking place in the 1980s at the dawn of the 24 hour cable news cycle that was initiated by CNN. In this film, Burgundy (Ferrell) is hired by startup, round the clock news network, GNN, an idea that everyone in the industry thinks is a joke. Burgundy is asked to recruit his original team of misfits from the first film to join him in his new endeavor. These include dim-witted weatherman, Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), street reporter and ladies-man, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and blow-hard sports reporter, Champ Kind (David Koechner).
As the film opens, Burgundy is still a successful anchorman, but also a family man, having married his squeeze from the first film, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and fathered a child. Veronica is soon promoted to the national desk, leading Burgundy to take an ill-advised job at Sea World. From there he’s offered the position at GNN and the plot, such as it is, begins to lurch forward. Burgundy has a rival at his new job in the form of the new network’s daytime anchor, Jack Lime (James Marsden), which leads to some mild amusement. Along the way Burgundy becomes estranged from Veronica and attempts to get back in her good graces and step up to his paternal responsibilities.
Anchorman 2 has about the same ratio of hit to miss gags that the first film contained. There are a few genuine belly laughs—and some terrific cameos—scattered about from time to time but not enough to justify a 119 minute running time. The long promotional drumbeat leading up to this film actually proves that the anticipation is sometimes better than the actual event.
Questions or comments? Email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.These four films are playing at the Carmike Theater in Hickory, and at other area movie theaters in North Carolina.