Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ben Stiller's THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY Dreams Of Being A Feel Good Epic

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ben Stiller, 2013)

I remember reading James Thurber's 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” when I was a kid in elementary school and being charmed by its simple concept - i.e. average man has heroic daydreams throughout a mundane day shopping with his wife.

Later I saw the 1947 Norman Z. McLeod adaptation, starring Danny Kaye, and really wasn't into what they did with it. Apparently Thurber didn't either, much like how P.L. Travers hated what Disney did to MARY POPPINS (horribly handled in the currently playing SAVING MR. BANKS), Thurber protested the songs and screenplay to no avail.

Now Ben Stiller, for his fifth film as director, tackles the concept in this even looser adaptation that aims to be a feel good epic for the whole family. Unfortunately despite its hip cast (Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt), snazzy soundtrack (Arcade Fire, Rogue Wave, David Bowie), and lavish production values (Stuart Dryberg's cinematography is gorgeous) the charm of the original is lost in action.

We first meet Stiller's Mitty in his sterile looking drab New York apartment trying, but failing, to “send a wink” on his eHarmony account to a co-worker he's smitten with (Wiig).

Obviously Stiller, by way of Steve Conrad's screenplay, is updating Mitty for the internet age, a theme also present in his job as a negative assets manager at Life Magazine being threatened by the company making the shift from print to digital.

Mitty, who we're told by his mother (Shirley MaClaine) worked at Papa John's when he was a teenager, is another in the long line of shy awkward characters that Stiller has made his movie career out of - guys who learn through the course of their films how to come of their shells.

Between Stiller's fantasies about saving a dog from a burning building, engaging in a surreal super hero-esque battle with Scott as his arrogant dick of a boss, and wooing Wiig by bursting through the wall as a rugged arctic explorer, a plot involving a missing negative intended for the last print edition cover of Life emerges.

Of course, this means Stiller has got to ditch the dreaming and do some actual adventuring. He leaves his office and travels across the globe to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas to find the photographer (Sean Penn at his crinkly grittiest), making the movie come off like Walter Mitty Vs. The Volcano especially because, well, he has to run from an erupting one at one point. 

Along the way, Oswalt, as an eHarmony representative, calls Stiller to get him to beef up the “been there, done that” section of his account on the dating site. You see, it seems our protagonist's main problem is that he's never gone anywhere.

It also seems like the real secret Mitty is hiding is that he has some mad skateboarding skills - these really come in handy on a winding mountain road in Iceland.

It's not just that Stiller's WALTER MITTY is a big commercial movie, it feels like a big commercial itself with its bumper sticker sayings and mottos.

But what is it a commercial for? eHarmony? Papa John's?

There's such a self conscious grab-life-by-the-balls vibe, transparent in such moments as Wiig telling Stiller that Bowie's “Space Oddity” is about “courage and going into the unknown” (Wiig even sings the song in one of Stiller's visions).

On the plus side, Stiller and Wiig, who it's nice to see playing a real believable person for once, have an easy going chemistry in their scenes together, but overall the comedy feels too light, the fantasies too forced, and tonally it's all over the place.

This is apparent in one of Mitty's daydreams about having that “Benjamin Button disease thing” where he's aging backwards and we see a CGI-ed Stiller as a tiny old man in Wiig's arms. This seems more akin to the spoofiness of his work in ZOOLANDER and TROPIC THUNDER than the spirit of the rest of the film.

I was also disappointed at how easily predictable all the film's pay-offs are. There are no surprises at how the narrative concerning Penn's lost photo wraps up, and the love story lacks any emotional pull.

WALTER MITTY is not without wit, and there's a fair amount of likability to the proceedings, but it's sad that Stiller and co. couldn't dream up something a whole lot better.

More later...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

While last year’s Oscar winning ARGO summoned the ‘70s in its opening moments by using the old bright red Warner Brothers logo, and the recent release of AMERICAN HUSTLE did the same by way of a vintage Columbia Studios logo, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, just goes with the current Paramount Pictures silver mountain design, proving upfront that it doesn’t need any help bringing the retro.

Martin Scorsese’s 23rd film, and fifth with Leonardo DiCaprio, nails the rampant excess of the ‘80s greed era with such a fearlessly funny, and raunchy as Hell glee that it makes Oliver Stone’s 1988 insider trading spectacle WALL STREET look like Sesame Street.

DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort, an ambitious Bronx-born stockbroker (or more accurately Stock swindler), who hit it rich in his ‘20s by founding the Long Island firm Stratton Oakmont. As our protagonist puts it in voice-over narration (and at times breaking the fourth wall asides to the audience): “The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars as the head of my own brokerage firm…which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

DiCaprio’s Belfort also tells us that he gambles “like a degenerate,” screws scores of hookers, has three different federal agencies looking to indict him, and, as if it’s the most important part of his personality, that he really loves drugs (a large mix of Quaaludes, Xanax, pot, and cocaine make up his daily regimen).

As DiCaprio’s partner in white collar crime and coke, Jonah Hill plays Donny Azoff (name changed to protect the guilty Danny Porush). Hill, with blindingly white capped teeth and funnier than he’s ever been, could be seen as the Joe Pesci to DiCaprio’s Ray Liotta if we were going to go down the GOODFELLAS goes to Wall Street route that many critics will no doubt take.

We witness DiCaprio’s corrupt character’s rise and fall by way of a furious pace provided by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s such an electrifying ride that it never drags or feels like it’s anywhere close to its actual length (it’s just under 3 hours at 179 minutes). In fact, I’m seriously hoping the Blu ray/DVD release features the four hour cut that’s been reported).

Everybody in the cast shines especially Matthew McConaughey in a short but sweet role as a mentor to DiCaprio who extols the virtues of jerking off, Kyle Chandler as a hard-nosed FBI agent looking to bust DiCaprio, Rob Reiner in an amusing performance as DiCaprio’s father who affects a fake British accent when speaking on the phone, THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin suavely playing a Swiss banker, The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal as a tough guy cronie, and newcomer blonde bombshell Margot Robbie as DiCaprio’s former model wife.

Terence Winter’s Screenplay, based on Belfort’s book of the same name, is full of sharp dialogue (except when the characters are all coked up then it’s appropriately sloppy), plus obvious but inevitable references to Gordon Gekko, THE GODFATHER, and Thomas Wolfe’s 1987 novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (let's just forget the awful movie version) because Belfort, of course, considers himself a “Master of the Universe.”

The amped-up soundtrack is dead on as well with classic blues by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James rubbing up alongside Devo, Cypress Hill, and Sir Mix-A-lot (Scorsese restrained himself this time and included no Stones tracks), all under the supervision of another longtime Scorsese collaborator, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who serves as executive music producer.

New to the Scorsese team is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ARGO) who captures in stunning tracking shots the swaggering sweep of its subject’s debauched lifestyle.

A stand-out sequence involving an DiCaprio, f-ed up beyond belief on a massive amount of Quaaludes having to crawl back to his car parked right outside at a country club reaches surreal heights of hilarity due in no small part to Prieto’s keen camera eye.

While I liked how David O’ Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE does a great job scamming folks into thinking they’re watching a Scorsese film, it’s so much more intoxicating to see the real thing.

At 71, Scorsese proves that he can still make master class cinema as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the director and DiCaprio’s finest film together, one that's much more deserving of a Best Picture Oscar than 2005’s THE DEPARTED, and I say that having really loved that movie.

Sure, WOLF covers similar ground to Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and CASINO in its wild depiction of money being the ultimate aphrodisiac, but its outlandish verve and gutsy-as-all-get-out attitude make it yet another major Marty masterpiece – a feast of a film that I can’t wait to go back to for a second helping.

More later...

Friday, December 20, 2013

David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE Pulls A Scorsese On ABSCAM

AMERICAN HUSTLE (Dir. David O. Russell, 2013)

“Some of this actually happened...” a title tells us up front and then we're off into one of the impressive approximations of the intoxicating style of Martin Scorsese that I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of them.

David O. Russell's follow-up to his home runs THE FIGHTER and last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK presents a darkly funny take on the ABSCAM sting of the late '70s and early '80s by way of a couple of con artist caricatures, portrayed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who are blackmailed into working for Bradley Cooper as an unhinged over-permed FBI agent.

Our intro to Bale as Irving Rosenfeld (loosely based on convicted con man Melvin Weinberg), takes us through how he applies what his girlfriend/partner-in-crime Adams calls “an elaborate comb-over,” gives us all we need to know about this small-time loan scammer. 

Of course, Bale and Adams' documentary-style voice-overs aren't the only allusions to GOODFELLAS going on in all the set-ups, as dead-on Carter-era song choices (Steely Dan's “Dirty Work” serves as a perfect opening theme song), and grainy chaotic camerawork relishing all the garish wardrobes and decor of the surroundings, keeps a Scorsese-ian sweep going from start to finish.

There's also a good bit of Paul Thomas Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS embedded in the structure, but since that also had massive debts to Scorsese, I digress. 

Cooper's Richard Richie DiMaso, who's based on FBI Agent Anthony Amoroso, Jr. can come off as much as a speeding spaz as the amped up movie around him at times, but look deeper and you'll see one of the most electric performances of the year.

More colorful caricatures (I call them that because everybody looks like they stepped out of the pages of Mad Magazine movie satires from the era depicted) crop up in the form of Jennifer Lawrence (Cooper's SILVER LININGS co-star) as Bale's bawdy wild card of a wife who may accidentally blow everyone's cover (Lawrence acts her ass off), Jeremy Renner as the idealistic mayor of Camden, New Jersey (with a very Joe Pesci-ish pompadour) who gets up in the scam, and comedian Louis C.K. as Cooper's uptight FBI supervisor.

A running bit about Cooper needling C.K. about both approving more money for the operation and guessing the moral of an aborted ice-fishing anecdote is a successful strand of silliness that kept me laughing alongside all the other in-your-face absurdity here.

Many will say its more rip-off than homage with such lame bon mots as “Scorsese-lite” to “Rhinestone Scorsese,” but I liken it to how people call a song that's in the vein of the Beatles but still has its own groove: “Beatle-esque.”

AMERICAN HUSTLE is definitely Scorsese-esque, but it has its own grooves going in its riffing on '70s cinema vibes. At one point when schooling Cooper on the art of the con, Bale asks “Who's the master: the painter or the forger?” 

I'll still go with the painter, especially as we're on the verge of a major Marty release (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET opens on Christmas day) that more than tops this, but when it comes to what Russell and his crack cast are going for here, to quote Christopher Walken in a classic SNL sketch: “It's a Hell of a forgery.”

More later... 

SAVING MR. BANKS: The Film Babble Blog Review

SAVING MR. BANKS (Dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013)

You don’t have to have had read up on the all the inaccuracies in this fatally fluffy film to see how bogus of a biopic it is. It’s a Disney-fied white-washing of the story behind the making of the classic 1964 musical MARY POPPINS that’s about as convincing as last year’s lackluster HITCHCOCK, another piece of blatant Oscar-bait.

As the film scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith tells it, initially reluctant “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers was won over by Walt Disney, whose 1964 adaptation complete with the songs and dancing cartoon penguins she originally objected to, made her cry at the film’s premiere. But it’s well documented that in reality Travers cried at what Disney had done to her character, and she forbade them to ever make a sequel, even expressly stipulating in her will (she died in 1996) that no American can ever adapt her work again.

Those aren’t things you’ll learn in the sugar-coated SAVING MR. BANKS, opening wide today. Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers as a prissy no-nonsense party pooper, who only gives in after 20 years of Disney’s pleading to sell the rights to her sacred text because she needs the money. Over the course of two weeks in 1961 Hollywood, Disney, played by Tom Hanks laying on his Tom Hanksian charms as thick as he can, attempts to woo Travers into selling with his MARY POPPINS creative team made up of Bradley Whitford as co-writer Don DaGradi, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the composer/lyricist brother duo of Richard and Robert Sherman.

Thompson’s Travers is plagued with memories of her childhood in Queensland, Australia, mostly consisting of Colin Farrell as her drunken father making a mess of his family’s life. These 1907-set scenes are presented as flashbacks, some fading into the more recent past GODFATHER PART II-style, but many are just cut to and from with little organic sense. Whatever the case they are repetitive and add very little.

Better, but not much, are the Burbank backlot rehearsal room set-pieces. There’s at least some bouncy wit present as when Novak slips the sheet music for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” out of sight after Thompson’s complaint about the song-writing duo making up words (“‘Responstible’ is not a word!”).

Sure, I get that this is a Disney production that has difficulty even owning up that its beloved head honcho smoked more than an occasional cigarette, but there’s no weight to any of this. Disney is just a man who wants to make a movie for his daughters who love the “Mary Poppins” books, while Travers wants to protect the integrity of her story, with its theme that the famous nanny wasn’t there to save the children; she was there to save the father (Farrell’s father character being the real Mr. Banks). In yet another tiresome flashback we see that Poppins was based on Travers’ stern Aunt Ellie, played by Six Feet Under’s Rachel Griffiths, but that’s a revelation that barely registers. The film’s attempts to draw humor from Thompson sneering at the excesses of the magical kingdom fall flat, while Thomas Newman’s derivative of classic Disney score came nowhere close to pulling on my heartstrings.

On the surface, SAVING MR. BANKS is reasonably polished and well produced, with fine performances by Thompson, Hanks, and the rest of the cast (including the superfluous but still welcome casting of Paul Giamatti as Traver’s chauffeur). It probably won’t get much Academy Award action, but it looks like a Golden Globe getter if there ever was one.

But ultimately it’s a case of sentimental self promotion with very little truth or even truthiness to it. If the real P.L. Travers cried when she saw what was done to her creation, I bet she would’ve walked out on this.

More later...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ANCHORMAN 2: Enough Laughs For Fans Of The First One

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Adam McKay, 2013)

Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, David Koetchner, and Steve Carrell decide while on one of their trademark strutts to get perms! That's funny, right?

Of course, you know from all the heavy publicity that it’s kind of a big deal that ‘70s broadcaster Ron Burgundy is back with the rest of the San Diego Channel 4 news team in this sequel to the 2004 comedy hit ANCHORMAN.

Will Ferrell, clad in his character’s signature burgundy three-piece suit, gathers his comedy buddies Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner together again to bring the retro-fitted funny, and for the most part they get the laughs they’re going for.

It’s just that I wish they, by way of Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay’s sketchy screenplay, were going for more in terms of story, satire, and real comic invention. I mean, they pile on the jokes, most of which are over-the-top one-liners, but the narrative concerning the dawning era of 24-hour news cycles is seriously under developed.

It’s now the ‘80s and Ferrell’s Burgundy is all washed up working as an announcer at SeaWorld after losing his coveted co-anchor job, and having divorced his wife (the also returning Christina Applegate) because she was promoted to the nightly news desk. But his pathetic predicament doesn’t last long because Dylan Baker comes calling to recruit Ron for a position in New York at the new basic cable channel upstart, GNN (Global News Network).

A sequence that resembles the “getting the gang back together” sequence in THE MUPPETS (the 2011 reboot) follows with Ferrell driving around in an RV plucking Koechner from his fast food franchise that serves bats disguised as fried chicken (he claims that an unspecified “they” calls them “chicken of the cave”), Rudd from his somehow sexy photographer gig for Cat Fancy magazine, and Carrell back from the dead, or rather for mistakenly thinking he’s dead as he’s found eulogizing himself at his own funeral.

So far so funny, but the movie’s premise never goes up from there even when introducing a new rival in the form of the intimidatingly handsome Jack Lime (James Marsden), who’s GNN’s star primetime anchor, while Burgandy and his bunch are stuck in the 2-5 am graveyard shift.

In one of his trademark fits of idiocy, Burgandy makes a bet with Lime that if his slot doesn’t get higher ratings he’ll quit the business, but if Lime loses he’ll have to legally change his name to “Lame.” This is, at least, a plot point, but one that doesn’t pay off – it sort of fades into the fussy framework. As does a later strand in which our hero goes blind from a skating injury (he was sabotaged by Marsden) and goes off to live in a lighthouse, one of several places in this 119 minute movie that the jokes fall flat and the laughs taper off.

A sharp as a tack Meagan Good as the boys’ new African American boss gives the film the chance to comment on ‘80s-era racism in the workplace, but, much like the first one’s take on sexism, it just skirts the silly surface on the topic – Ferrell not being able to stop saying the word “black” when first meeting Good is a telling indicator of the level here.

Another new addition to the cast, Kristen Wiig, as Carrell’s frizzy-haired dim-witted love interest is way underutilized, and they really didn’t have any reason to have Harrison Ford (gruff as usual) on board as a network bigwig except that Ferrell and McKay thought ‘why not?’

Still, ANCHORMAN 2 largely stays classy and has laughs a plenty even when it shamelessly trots out re-dos of bits like the epic newscaster battle scene stuffed with surprise cameos (I’m not spoiling!), and another crazy showcasing of Ron’s jazz flute skills. These bits worked before, so again, why not refry them and serve them up again?

Fans of the first one should find enough quotable lines (one of my favorites: “Who the hell is Julius Caesar? I don't follow the NBA!”), enough goofy sight gags, and enough in-your-face absurdity for the sake of in-your-face absurdity to satisfy them, but folks who aren’t into Ferrell ‘n friends’ brand of crude PG-13 boundary pushing comedy should stay home in droves.

More later...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Feeling Right At Home With The Authentic Tone Of Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA

Opening today at an art house near me:

NEBRASKA (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

At one point in this excellent film, I was reminded of a bit that I saw late night talk show host/comedian Craig Ferguson do last month at the Carolina Theatre about how you can get away with saying practically anything cruel by saying “I’m not judging, I’m just being honest.”

As Bruce Dern’s long suffering wife, June Squibb is reminiscing out loud in a cemetery about folks she used to know in the film’s fictional small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. In the mist of her blunt takedowns of the not so dearly departed she remarks of her husband’s sister: “I liked Rose, but my god, she was a slut!”

Comic actor Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MACGRUBER), as Dern and Squibb’s son, snaps “Mom, come on,” but Squibb simply states “I’m just telling the truth” and continues her trash talking walk through the headstones.

It’s a fitting line, for NEBRASKA, Alexander Payne’s follow-up to his much more commercial George Clooney vehicle THE DESCENDANTS isn’t judging its characters, it’s being honest about them. Its simple premise of Dern’s protagonist Woody Grant erroneously thinking he’s won a million dollars sweepstakes because of a piece of junk mail hawking magazine subscriptions superbly sets up a bunch of bluntly funny scenes, made all the more sharper by being shot in black and white.

Working with first time screenwriter Bob Nelson’s words, Payne gives us a road movie in the vein of ABOUT SCHMIDT (my personal favorite Payne), which bleeds through in such moments as Dern revisiting locations from his youth (the auto shop he used to co-own, his former watering hole, etc.). Shades of Nicholson’s Schmidt walking into The Tires Plus store that stands on the site of his childhood home for sure.

Despite the protests of mother Squibb (another SCHMIDT factor as she was the wife in that too) Forte opts to drive his ornery out-of-it father from their Billings, Montana home to the lottery office in Lincoln, Nebraska. They stop in Hawthorne for a family reunion, which includes a terrific turn by Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad) as Forte’s older newscaster brother, the soft spoken Rance Howard (a great grizzled character actor who’s been in everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Seinfeld) as Dern’s brother, and Mary Louise Wilson (another recognizable longtime veteran of the big and small screen) as Howard’s wife.

A slimy Stacy Keach as Dern’s former auto mechanic partner makes it well known that he wants a cut of Dern’s winnings, as do ne-er-do-well nephews Devin Natray and Tim Driscoll, who have some of the film’s funniest moments especially in a scene where they mock Forte for how long it took him to drive the 750 miles from home to Hawthorne (Driscoll: “Two goddamn days from Billings!”).

It's a career best for Dern, once one of New Hollywood's shining lights of '70s cinema, who definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for his role as the ole codger drunkard, but Squibb steals large chunks of the movie with her fearless bluster. A scene in which she tells off the folks, “vultures” she calls them, clamoring for their cut of Dern's supposed winnings with a resounding f-bomb alone should get her a nomination nod from the Academy.

It's also great to see another side of Forte, as a somewhat beaten down smalltime stereo salesman dealing with a recent break up with his girlfriend of two years (Missy Doty). Forte's effective everyman embarking on a trip to bond with his father, and for a change of scenery resonates beautifully.

Speaking of scenery, the wide lonely spaces of the spare Midwestern settings that surround these sad characters look stunning through the lens of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also shot Payne's SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS. Anyone's who's traveled across country through the empty terrains of America will get the ambience Payne is going for.

I felt right at home with the authentic tone of NEBRASKA. It has more genuine laughs than most comedies, and more heartfelt humanity than most dramas. It's a near perfect piece of major Payne that makes most of its indie competition this year look pretty shallow. And you know, I'm not judging - I'm just telling the truth.

More later...