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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 27 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 52
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Fantasy and reality coexist in Stiller's Walter Mitty
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE SECRET LIFE
OF WALTER MITTY
Now Playing


It feels as if a new version of James Thurber's classic short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, has been percolating around Hollywood for ages. I seem to remember Jim Carrey being involved with a remake at one point or another in the recent past, while a whole cavalcade of directors both big and small have had their hand in the ring as far as shepherding it into theatres was concerned.

But it took director/star Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) to ultimately fashion a new version a Hollywood studio would be willing to get behind, trying their mutual best to stay true to the inherent themes of Thurber's story while also separating themselves from the popular 1947 production starring Danny Kaye. They attempt to make the fanciful tale a product of the here and now and not an artifact of its time, fashioning a fantasy speaking to the best aspects of the human experience the whole family can in some part relate to.

While not meeting with total success, I must admit I enjoyed this new take on Thurber's memorable tale more than I anticipated. Stiller and Conrad have managed to make a movie about grabbing life by the horns, about how it's never too late to reach for greatness, and while dreams and aspirations do, and should, change over time, the ability to find new ones to struggle and aspire towards is a gift worth being thankful for. I could relate to many of the more whimsical elements of the film with striking clarity, and as such my heart was soaring by the time our hero's journey reached its readily expected end.

That doesn't make watching the film a completely smooth ride. There is a herky-jerkiness to the first third that's disconcerting - the fanciful, the farcical and the fictional uneasily sharing screen time with hardened real world emotional peaks and valleys that don't always feel like being worthy of wandering around. As comforting and pleasing as the truths Stiller and Conrad come to are, they are unabashedly obvious, making what ultimately happens something far less than surprising.

While the basic bones of Thurber's original prose remain, Conrad takes daydreamer Walter Mitty (Stiller) into the 21st century by making him a photographic imager, also known as a 'negative asset manager,' for LIFE magazine, currently dealing with the institution's transition from print media to a new existence on the World Wide Web. When the latest photo from renowned journalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), intended to be the cover for the final issue, goes missing, inspired by editorial assistant Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) Walter steps out of his own fantasies and into hardened reality as he sets out into the unknowable in order to find the missing negative.

Some of Mitty's daydreams are remarkably effective. An early one, showing him fantasizing bursting into a burning building to save a woman's cat, while also leading the remainder of the residents to safety, is suitably, unapologetically silly. Others, though, are less effective. A ghastly aerial battle between the magazine's sheltered employee and incoming vice president Ted Hindricks (Adam Scott), in charge of both the magazine's dismantling as well as the transition to becoming an online publication, is a hyperbolic catastrophe that takes forever to come to an end. There is an uneasy balance between the two sides of Mitty's world that doesn't always connect, and it isn't until he steps off the plane in Greenland that the movie truly finds its footing and begins to matter.

I have to say, those sequences starting in Greenland are easily the film's best, Stiller balancing all the aspects of the tale with blissful ebullience. A musical sequence combining Wiig and David Bowie into one is remarkable, while a sequence of our hero skateboarding through an apparently secluded mountaintop village on the eve of an unanticipated volcanic eruption is emotionally sublime. It is during these sequences I could really feel Walter come alive and take charge in ways he'd always been fearful to do beforehand, making his ultimate third act transformations all the more believable in the process. My heart leapt during these passages, and had the film been a short, it could have ended with his somewhat triumphant arrival back in New York, instead of going on for another hour, and I wouldn't have minded one single bit.

But it does go on, and while there are numerous moments of magic remaining (the anticipated meeting up of Mitty and O'Connell is worth the wait), certain aspects (not the least of which is a running gag involving matchmaking website eHarmony and the wasting of both Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn in underwritten roles) leave a lot to be desired. It is during these portions that Stiller and Conrad's handling begins to lack the same inspiration and ingenuity of the preceeding portions. And, while the movie remains continually worthwhile, there's still a little something lacking that's impossible to completely ignore.

Be that as it may, I'm more than willing to give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a pass for a great majority of its missteps, if only because its heart remains true throughout, even if elements hidden inside of it are less than so. While Stiller has made better films as a director (Tropic Thunder comes to mind), this in many ways is his most ambitious, and I admit the smile he put on my face as it came to an end was one I felt was justifiably earned. Thurber's story is still the only classic element, but that doesn't make the film itself less worthwhile. While fantasy and reality don't always inhabit the same plane with comforting ease, the fact the conversation they're having remains worth having, no matter what, is a superlative daydream I didn't want to see come to an end.


Scorsese's Wolf a hungry tale of excess and greed
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E WriterFormatEmail THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Now Playing

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn't inherently a bad man. A working class kid with stars in his eyes and dollar signs clouding his thinking, after his first job as a New York stockbroker doesn't go to plan, the whip-smart salesman finds himself sitting on the bottom of despair unsure the best path forward. Hatching onto a plan involving low-priced stocks and big commissions, he rounds up a group of friends and teaches them how to sell everything and anything, quickly building up a portfolio and a company the envy of all of Wall Street.

But what begins as an attempt to make a better life for himself and his family soon spirals out of control into unimaginable excess. Fueled by drugs, booze and women more than willing to debase themselves at his feet for a handful of cash, Belfort skirts the rules and bends every law he can in the pursuit of more, catching the eye of straight-laced FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in the process.

Based on Belfort's memoir, Martin Scorsese's Quaalude-fueled bleakly comic New York financial industry free-for-all The Wolf of Wall Street is a coal black evisceration that's so in-your-face, watching it is akin to a bodily assault. The movie slapped me around, stepped on my hands, kicked me in the stomach and spit in my face, doing so with a kinetic ferocity that was so all-encompassing, the cumulative effect was staggering. At just shy of three hours, the movie isn't for the faint of heart or spirit, the legendary director playing at such a fevered pace and with such surrealistic brio, calling the picture a 180 minute meat grinder wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Is it entertaining? Yes and no, the full impact of just how heinous the main players are and the real lack of any sort of meaty comeuppance - the point of it all, after all - rightly disconcerting. But the movie is so filled with energy, so enthusiastically crafted and so brilliantly acted by its key players, it's difficult not to be impressed. More than that, though, Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter (Get Rich or Die Tryin') do a magnificent job of placing the viewer right into the middle of the maelstrom, allowing us to feel what Belfort does, making this particular merry-go-round shockingly easy to ride.

DiCaprio throws himself into this with everything he's got. This is a freewheeling, uninhibited performance freed from constraint. He's a madman living in the moment, doing everything he can to feed an overwhelming need for celebrity and materialistic intemperance, falling over the line of decency into nihilistic psychosis. But what makes him magnificent isn't the fact he's willing to go wherever Scorsese chooses to lead him, but that he's doing it in total servitude to the story. In lesser hands this could have just been an over-the-top scenery chomping showcase of bluster and bile but in his, it is extraordinary, DiCaprio delivering the kind of all-encompassing showcase sure to be dissected, debated and, in some corners, excoriated for many years to come.

As per usual, the rest of the cast Scorsese has assembled is up to the challenge. Jonah Hill has never been better, and that includes his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. He's Belfort's best friend, business partner and, in all of the worst ways, his enabler Donnie Azoff, helping him achieve his success just at the same time he unintentionally undermines it with bad decision making skills and a yen for anything he can snort up his nose. Matthew McConaughey, who apparently is no longer capable of choosing a bad role, shows up early on, making an indelible imprint as a Wall Street titan who inadvertently sets Belfort on his narcissistic path, stealing every second he appears on screen with an arrogant swagger that's mesmeric.

The remainder of the supporting players, including Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Shea Whigham, P.J. Byrne, Cristin Milioti and directors Rob Reiner and Jon Favreau all have signature moments that justifiably standout, while former 'The Walking Dead' and current Grudge Match scene-stealer Jon Bernthal makes a major imprint every time he steps into the frame. But the real surprise is newcomer Margot Robbie, the young Australian actress crafting a complex and marvelously nuanced performance as Belfort's second wife, Naomi. She's the only truly sympathetic figure present in this entire saga, and what on the surface appears to be nothing more than a superficial gold-digger turns out to be a humane and caring figure of regret and sadness who sees the good in everyone only to have them let her down time and time again.

The film is long, there's no getting around that, and there are portions that, while in and of themselves are exceptionally delivered and exceedingly well made, repeat themes and ideas in Winter's script that are already readily apparent. It can also be said that Scorsese, for all his flash and his flair, isn't digging as deeply into this morass has he possibly could have, allowing Belfort and his cronies somewhat off the hook in ways that come close to celebrating their more odious character defects (of which there are too many to recount).

But that might just be the point. Showing the zest, flair and abilities of a much younger filmmaker, Scorsese's willingness to throw convention out with the bathwater isn't just laudable, it's worthy of celebration. It's as if he's managed to combine the best attributes of Goodfellas, Casino, After Hours and The King of Comedy into one odd-duck of a cinematic character study, the film treading the line between melodramatic tragedy and pitch black comedic prodigality with superlative ease. His statements about the one percent and their seeming indifference to the rest of the world isn't revelatory, but that doesn't make them any less necessary, Scorsese keeping his eye on the prize no matter how unwieldy or absurd what's going on inside the story he's telling might in fact become.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the kind of movie I feel like I need to watch multiple times in order to get a proper hold of it. It's disgusting central figures and the way it looks at them with such dispassionate clarity is as off-putting and as ugly as it should be, the bad taste building in my mouth as indispensable as it is unexpected. Scorsese's zestfully anarchic approach is exactly as it should be, the Oscar-winning director proving once again he's still America's reigning cinematic poet laureate willing to go places and do things others wouldn't dream of let alone attempt.


Her a spectacle of intimacy, heartbreak and understanding
by Sara Michelle Fetters SGN A&E Writer

HER
Now Playing


Spike Jonze is as singular and as original a filmmaker as there is working today. The man behind such iridescent achievements as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, this idiosyncratic filmmaker has outdone himself with the beguiling, multifaceted science fiction influenced love story, Her. Set in a Los Angeles of the very near future, this is as perfect and as precise an examination of our current obsession with technology and with living our lives online as anything that I've ever seen, it's that prescient and innovative.

More than that, though, it is an honestly constructed romance that enlivens the soul, understanding the delicate intricacies of the human heart with startling perceptiveness. It's relatable in ways difficult to describe, a fact made more impressive when you consider that the central love affair revolves around a human being of flesh, blood and bone and a programmed computer operating system made of software, code and unfathomable bits of digitized circuitry.

Yes, you read that right. Her revolves around the romance between a man and, not a computer, not a machine, but an operating system (O.S. for short). What's more, it's believable. Better, it's authentic, traversing the heart's most mysterious pathways with remarkable ease. Jonze's script is an incredible one-of-a-kind-journey of self-discovery and experimentation that is universal in its humanistic underpinnings, making relating to all that's taking place a far easier thing than one might initially surmise.

The central protagonist is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a sensitive creative sort who makes his living composing handwritten letters of affirmation, thanks and love for others. But as good as he is at doing this, getting into the mindset of those seeking his services with ease, his own personal life is a mess, the thirty-something writer dealing with the repercussions of a failed marriage he refuses to put behind him.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She's the voice of a brand new operating system Theodore has recently purchased to run his personal systems. She's smart, funny, insightful and amazingly intuitive, showcasing a zest for learning and a passion for life he hasn't allowed himself to experience since his marriage dissolved. Theodore is smitten, the pair evolving one-with-the-other as the man learns to open his heart back to others, while the O.S. evolves into a self-aware consciousness eager to experience all of the emotions the world has to offer.

Jonze allows the futuristic aspects of his scenario to augment all that it is he's talking about, the filmmaker looking at our online digital world and how we're slowly allowing ourselves to disconnect from human contact in shocking detail. At the same time he uses Theodore and Samantha's story to showcase how love can bloom and blossom in the most unique and unexpected of places, each bringing out the best in the other as they both progress into something vibrant, alive and, most of all, new.

Phoenix gives a performance that's as superb as anything he's ever given, at the very least equaling last year's turn in The Master, but still catching me continually by surprise. This is as nakedly open and as emotionally pure an acting job as any this year, every facet of Theodore's being coming to light in incremental stages, depending on where his relationship with Samantha stands. Phoenix is raw, totally unvarnished, his smile capable of lighting up a room while his misery produces a bucket of tears just with the quivering of a lip or the trembling of an eyebrow.

Then, there is Johansson. I almost don't know what to say, as this is one of the best vocal performances I've ever come into contact with. This goes so far beyond the reading of lines, putting what she accomplishes in some sort of hardened, tactile perspective almost impossible. Safe to say, with nothing more than the timber of her voice or the enunciation of certain syllables, she crafts a living, breathing character out of a machine, developing a believable chemistry with her co-star capable of snapping a person's heart in two.

Splendid supporting work is turned in by Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Kristen Wiig, Olivia Wilde, Portia Doubleday and Laura Kai Chen, each making the most of their respective appearances, adding insights and gradations to the story that could not have existed without them. Arcade Fire provides the stirring, delicately balanced score, while Hoyte Van Hoytema's (Let the Right One In) cinematography impresses with its naturalistic visual evolutions. As for K.K. Barrett's (Where the Wild Things Are) production design, it's incredible, making the dichotomy between Jonze's futuristic ideas and the inherent modernisms of our 2013 society sublime.

In a year that's been filled with some magnificent cinematic entertainments, Her might just be the best of the bunch. Jonze has managed to do something that will catch many off-guard, the way this romance evolves and who the central players end up being not at all what most are going to expect. It is a beautiful, life-affirming achievement, building to a beguiling bit of perceptive understatement, that took my breath away. And while the world might be moving in increasingly robotized circles, that doesn't make the human connections we make any less essential.


Elba helps make Mandela a walk worth taking
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Now playing


In some ways, it is surprising that it has taken someone so long to adapt Nelson Mandela's 1994 autobiography for the big screen. In other ways, with recent events being what they have been, it just seems right that the movie version, directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), with a screenplay by William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator), is hitting screens now. With the passing of the South African leader, looking back on the events that transformed him into one of the 20th century's most indelible and important icons, feels akin to essential, a complex man of this magnitude deserving every bit of examination and appreciation we can bestow on him.

With that being so, reviewing Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is something of a difficult proposition.

It's impossible to look at the film outside of recent events, hard to let it work on its own and not have reactions colored by what has transpired. Watching it, I admit to having moments of trouble severing my personal opinions and respect for the man from the movie made about the first two-thirds of his life, forcing me to watch it twice in order to make sure my judgments weren't being clouded by external factors.

What conclusions have I come to in regards to the subsequent motion picture?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a good movie. It is not, sad to say, a great one. And that's okay, Chadwick and Nicholson putting together a fetching bio pic that goes from points A to B to C with relative ease. Better, it's extremely well-acted by stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, the former, in particular, dominating the proceedings with a suitably commanding performance that is as complex as it is larger than life.

The central crux follows Mandela's (Elba) path from small-time lawyer, to leader in the African National Congress, to prisoner on Robben Island, to his release 26 years later to see Apartheid end and his own election as South Africa's Prime Minister.

It depicts his first marriage as it comes apart at the seams, his striving for peaceful resistance but his refusal to rule out violence, and his romance and marriage to Winnie Madikizela (Harris), leading to their eventual disagreements on how best to proceed with their political efforts after his release from prison. The film covers as many events in Mandela's life as it can cram into 140 or so minutes, giving many of them as much emphasis as they can, while others get noticeably shorter shrift that can undeniably perplex.

The film is extremely professionally composed and put together, the filmmakers following a relatively old school template, echoing in many ways Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, which isn't even close to being a bad thing in and of itself. But there comes a point where this can feel more like historical Cliff's Notes than it does an actual in-depth discussion and dissection of an extremely complicated man's life in the public eye. Everything just seems to happen a lot of the time, things moving from one event to the next with relative matter-of-fact simplicity, trying so hard to maintain an observational distance so that the inherent dramatics of each situation are sadly muted in the process.

But Elba is so dang good, delivering an intricate, effectively nuanced portrait of Mandela that's continually compelling. He fearlessly doesn't allow him to become a saint, making sure to portray his flaws and positive attributes in equal light, allowing him to become more of a titanic heroic figure in the process. There are points where I felt I was really getting to know Mandela in ways I never could have dreamt of beforehand, while certain scenes struck me silent with their powerful emotional content. Elba handles everything thrown his way with ease, slipping into the well-known world leader's visage with fascinating ease.

The sequences in Robben Island arguably work the best, and I loved how Chadwick and Nicholson augment things of apparently little import only to subtly allow them to grow and blossom into moments of great power and magnitude. The sense of isolation, a feeling of being ripped out of the world and placed in the middle of a corrosive, inhuman desert, is omnipresent at every turn during this part of the film, so by the time Mandela's daughter visits for the first time as a teenager, the effect it had upon me was shattering.

I'm not sure what to add. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a handsome picture, made with obvious passion and care by those both behind and in front of the camera. But it never comes alive with the same fiery, charismatic intensity of the man whose story it is attempting to tell, keeping me at something of an emotional distance for most of its running time. Yet Elba is magnificent, and the inherent power of Mandela's story is undeniable, so while this biography is never all it could have been, what it actually is ends up being thankfully enough.


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Fantasy and reality coexist in Stiller's Walter Mitty
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Scorsese's Wolf a hungry tale of excess and greed
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Her a spectacle of intimacy, heartbreak and understanding
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Elba helps make Mandela a walk worth taking
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