Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Up front, I’d like to give the guy who created the final trailer for Walter Mitty an award.

I remember seeing that trailer in late Fall 2013, leading up to the Christmas Day release of the movie; and I remember being dazzled at just how good that trailer was… nodding toward that abyss of existential angst underlying any human ego and offering to provide one man’s way of soaring above it — all with triumphant music, stunning color, and a resolutely resonant Ben Stiller… although underlying it all, I found myself skeptical of any of it being real. It was like falling in love with someone across a crowded room, thrilling over the mere sight and sound of them, yet knowing full-well that things could likely flop if you ever dared actually approach them and find out who they truly are.

And that’s how the movie worked for me.

The issues come at the start and last a good half-hour or more into the story. The movie is flat… very flat…. to the degree I almost stopped watching. Stiller does best when he’s allowed to create energy on-screen… but the interpretation of Walter Mitty is so restrained and internalized that Stiller isn’t really able to engage anyone or anything until later in the movie as he begins to explore his own self-expansion. Beats drop out of the dialogue, there are long pauses where someone should be responding, and Mitty just… stands there. Or says something inconsequential. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care.

Adam Scott as Hendricks, the “professional head chopper” who decimates the Life mag staff, comes off as a brittle and annoying twerp (with a paste-on beard, to boot!) who no respectable company would have taken seriously enough to hire. Again, the tone issue is a killer; if Walter Mitty weren’t so flat and humorless, then maybe we could view Hendricks as caricature, but it just doesn’t gel.

Fortunately, Wiig (as the potential love interest of this isolated man), MacLaine (as his independent and engaging mom), and Penn (as the almost-but-not-quite MacGuffin of this “coming to terms with self” story) do a lot to both anchor and energize the movie before it completely deflates. Even Patton Oswalt’s rather random character (the eHarmony service rep who jovially pesters Mitty throughout the movie) is more entertaining.

The movie comes more to life when Walter finally does something “crazy” (mostly out of desperation — he’s too professional to quit trying, even after it doesn’t matter) and takes off for Iceland, to track down photographer O’Connell and acquire the missing “negative #25”. In the process, he ends up having to take more risks than he’s reduced himself to over the years, reacquiring a spark for life he once had but then had forgotten.  Some of the depicted events are unbelievable, yet the landscapes and depicted events are the most stunning parts of the movie  — far more compelling than the character of Walter Mitty.

And ah yes, where is that mysterious “negative #25” that is “lost” in the early part of the movie, instigating Walter’s decision to take a risk? Well, I imagined it going one of two ways, and it was my second thought that proved true. No real surprises there. The content itself kept me guessing ’til the end, yet left me unsatisfied with its conventional sentiments. I thought the ending would be… bigger?

Maybe it was that trailer that I couldn’t get out of my head. You know, the one that made this a story larger than Walter Mitty, a story that encompassed all of humanity. The one that sent my pulse pounding, my heart racing, spurred a desire to just drop all the dead weight of my day and look for more meaningful ways to spend my time. The one that suggested a large lesson — that life is not meant to be managed or processed, it’s meant to be lived, and the risks we take for the things we desire and love (rather than just hiding in our heads) are what ends up contributing to our eventual satisfaction.

So live, Walter. And let’s live, all of us… not the secret life, but the real one.

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Godzilla (2014)

Never have kaiju been so loud, so big, and so bad.
(And did I say LOUD? And BIG? And BAD?)

And never have some of the best actors in the industry been so wasted.

I wasn’t expecting a character drama, not at all; I was just looking for some hardcore monster-on-monster cagematching; but as Pacific Rim showed, a small, small investment to make your characters distinguishable from each other goes a long, long way. THAT movie wasn’t high drama either, but at least I had a sense of who people were and what they wanted, and it enabled me to care about what happened, mourn over the losses, laugh at situational humor.

Godzilla only really has one character whose motivations you understand, and that doesn’t last long; and the rest of the characters are just filler. David Strathairn? Elizabeth Olsen? Ken Watanabe? Juliette Binoche? Bryan Cranston? Wasted or close to it. You could have cast this movie with nobodies and it would have trawled in the same box office haul, and the movie would not have been any worse for it.

(But it’s so LOUD! and BIG! and BAD!)

And no, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not a bad actor in his own right, but his character here is just debris bounced from disaster to disaster, with little motivation of his own (except maybe “Homeward Bound,” kaiju eiga style). Which leads to probably the biggest reason why none of the human element worked:

The movie is not about the people, it’s really about the monsters — yet they spend 75% of the movie on the people without doing much with them.

The people never are able to stand in the way of the monsters, their efforts are obviously pointless from the start. Humanity’s only hope is Godzilla… and he shows up on his own to kill the other kaiju in order to “balance out nature.” He’s like starvation to an overpopulation of deer or a bolt of lightning to balance out electron quotas — the naturalistic deux es machina trashing the behemoths that humanity cannot, and he comes, he conquers, he descends to the ocean depths in glory at will, and one day he shall come again to judge the living and the dead kaiju alike, selah and thanks for all the fish.

(And “Gofira” is also terrible at cleaning up after himself, you’ll need one hell of a pooper-scooper… but I digress.)

((But wow, did I say it was LOUD? and BIG? and BAD?! ))

Godzilla is in essence the anti-Cloverfield. Cloverfield is in essence a love story using a city-razing monster as a backdrop, so keeping the monster hidden makes sense  and increases tension. Godzilla is really a monster movie that tries to use a love story as a backdrop (Dad wants to get home!), yet much of the movie focuses on Dad’s wanderings rather than on the Daddy Monster of them all. MOAH MONSTAH PLEEZ.

I still dream of a 90-minute IMAX 3D extreme-combat bonebreaking downtown-trashing smörgåsbord of destruction.

PS. Was that a handful of Zip disks being portrayed as antiquated technology? Oh horrors!

2.5/5

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Amazing Spider-Man 2

ASM2 seems to be one of the most heavily reviewed movies out there right now, being at the start of “blockbuster” season before the glut, but individual responses almost seem dependent on coin flips: Rotten Tomatoes seems split pretty much down the middle, and for every reviewer that hates this movie, another one enjoys it. I admit how disconcerting it’s been to read reviews that take an axe to the same ideas and scenes I found myself appreciating.

Where did it fall for me? No, it’s not a classic within “genre movies” like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, or Wrath of Khan; and it’s not as solid as Avengers or Iron Man; but I still enjoyed it my viewing of it in the IMAX 3D. The opening sequence (a semi-routine Spidey heist-chase) is one of the best. And in this movie, Garfield continues to expertly convey the wisecracking variation of Spider-man, along with Peter’s skills as a gearhead… something Maguire’s version veered away from.

Some of the more personal scenes were moving enough to tear me up. Sally Field might not look like Aunt May in the way Rosemary Harris did, but she’s far more able to move me with the transparency of her agony over her evolving relationship to Peter and his own complexes. There is some great directing work when Harry and Peter meet for the first time in years and the mood has to shift abruptly from that awkward distance between long-separated friends to reexperienced comraderie.

And of course, it’s amazing how Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield can construct a realistic relationship through the intimate rhythm of their banter with dialogue that, on paper, is rarely ever a completed (even half-completed) thought. I believe they love each other when I see them — I believe so much. They’re like two parts of the same person, they can’t help but be together.

I didn’t mind flashbacks to Gwen’s dad (since a neurotic Peter who doesn’t deal directly with his emotions would necessarily be besieged through his subconscious by broken promises). I didn’t mind that there were in total “three supervillains” in the movie because none of them were on screen at once; only one is the primary villain, another’s predictable development is tracked steadily throughout, just in time to appear for a brief but significant encounter; and the third villain plays the same role that the Underminer did in The Incredibles, so he doesn’t even really count as being in the movie. I didn’t mind Electro’s plot arc, which if you break it down to the basics, is pretty similar in beats to Doc Octopus’s in Spiderman 2 [bad accident, recuperates, first encounter, villain hones his goals, final encounter]. And all these characters had clear and reasonable motivations for their behavior — you see it all unfold onscreen.

I didn’t mind that the movie also toyed with the resolution of Gwen Stacy and her romance with Peter. You pretty much have to live under a rock to remain unaware of the plot spoiler from the comic series, so it’s inevitable that you’ll start the movie feeling some anxiety. The movie plays with this, consciously. But every time it bluntly foreshadows one outcome, it’ll renege a bit later, leaving you wondering whether (a la The Walking Dead) a character’s fate on the big screen can truly be set in stone on the pages of a flimsy comic book.

I had a few regrets, one being that Chris Cooper got barely any screen time. (That guy is just too damn good to be resigned to a cameo.) Another was Kafka, the mad scientist who seems so much a cliche — although, if you’re a comic fan, you’ll recognize that name as being from the actual book. The “crossover clip” in the credits really came out of left field. The board meeting scene was pretty sketchy, writing-wise. And so on.

But like I said, it’s not high art. It could have been better, yes. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable for me, or that I couldn’t see moments of perfection within it. I came to see an action picture that would also move me on occasion with some authentic interactions among the cast, and that’s what I ended up getting. But there were things here that should remain burned into Peter’s psyche in regards to all of his important relationships, and I expect to see them followed up on in ASM3 if there is to be authenticity.

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