The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

There are some actors that I don’t know how to feel about. I used to like some of their films, then they produced several off-the-boil films that did nothing for me. They were well meaning, but weren’t good. No, I’m not talking about Adam Sandler, who has produced several great movies years (and years) ago, but has been producing dross ever since. They weren’t “well meaning” films… they were just dross. Pure dross. Ok, I’m done with typing “dross”. Unfortunately, Will Smith is falling into this category now, as he’s not produced a solid hit in a little while now; it seems like his golden era is behind him. But this isn’t a review of a Will Smith film… it focuses on Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a big screen adaptation of a decades-old short story, this time starring and directed by Ben Stiller as the eponymous character. Walter works for a magazine called Life (imagine National Geographic), which is now coming to a close. Walter works in the photographic department and is charged with producing the front covers. So when the “perfect” picture arrives from illusive top photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and it’s missing… well… this causes some problems for Walter. But that’s not all; Walter is a dreamer. A day dreamer of the greatest magnitude. His life is very “routine” and orderly, but he often escapes into a land of fantasy, cooking up elaborate visions of the world around him. But questing off after Sean adds a bit of spice to this ordinary life…

So, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has two sides to it: the mystery of “where is the picture, and how do I track down Sean?” and the fantasies cooked up in Walter’s head. This is also a bit of a problem with an otherwise charming and heart-warming film. The root of this problem lies with the fact that the story cannot decide whether it’s a comedy, or an adventure film. Some of Ben Stiller‘s past work has been very cut-and-dry: comedy or drama. This? Well… this veers between the two.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The strengths of the film lie in the dramatic adventures that unravel for Walter, and not the comedy. The comedic elements start off entertaining, but the more the plot develops, the more of a hindrance these jokes become. They come across as jarring and terribly out of place. However, if you can get past these jokes, you’ll uncover what is a beautiful story that’s lovingly shot and brought to the big screen. What really worked was Stiller‘s attention to cinematography, helped along in no small measure by shooting on location in Iceland and Greenland. Further, the accompanying music really adds to the “epic” nature of the film.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The plot was genuinely fun and it developed in an interesting way. Even the love story secondary subplot managed to twist enough to not be entirely contrived. Hell, it’s nice to see a single mum (played by Kristen Wiig) shown as the desirable love interest for once in a movie! But I need to return to the comedy element. At first, Mitty’s zoning out introduces excuses for either bombastic action sequences or for Stiller to dress up in costume and exercise some of his comedic muscles. Sure, he is funny… but it seems out of place considering the tone of the rest of the film. The light-hearted comedy that “flows” naturally into the pace of proceedings does work really well though. I understand that the tearaway sections are integral to the Walter Mitty story, but I just found myself more drawn to the “normal” story and the character arc of the protagonist. Sure, this arc is predictable and you can see what’ll happen from the outset, but it’s still fun to see. And ultimately, it proves one thing: growing beards makes you far more rugged and adventurous. Best grow myself a beard then…

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a heartwarming film perfectly suited to the Christmas period. Sure, some of the film’s tone is uneven and the comedic and dramatic elements don’t gel too well, but this can be overlooked, as the core story is exciting and enraptures. I’ve been dubious about what to expect from Stiller in recent years, as I can’t say I’ve actively sought out one of his movies since Tropic Thunder, but this was definitely worth the trip.

So I’ll admit it… I was pleasantly surprised by Ben Stiller here. I can’t say I was actively looking forward to the film, as the trailers made it out to be another case of “let’s dress in funny wigs and have accents”, but it wasn’t! Maybe Will Ferrell will be next to produce a film that goes against the grain and is genuinely good… Wait, it’s a bit early for an April Fools joke isn’t it?

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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Mud (2013)

Mud (2013)

I like it when an actor blindsides you with a performance you really weren’t expecting. Especially when they’ve been somewhat typecast in previous movies. Sure, you might be able to identify the odd movie they had that was a break from the norm, before they reverted back to their “type”. And actors sure do love playing up to their “type”! I don’t think we’ll be seeing Dwayne Johnson playing a hopeless romantic any time soon… unless his romance is between him and a free weights section at the gym. Conversely, you’ve got someone like Channing Tatum – a guy that’s willing to experiment with his roles, which has led to some startlingly good performances where he doesn’t just dance around the screen… But all of this pales in comparison to a performance from 2012 by one Matthew McConaughey. That film was Killer Joe. His new film promised more of the same: a break from “type”, but did Mud deliver?

Hey Joe!

Hey Joe!

I must say that Mud came at me from under the radar. I had no hype for it and it honestly wasn’t even pushed very hard in the UK. If I’m honest, I only became aware of it thanks to Keith over at Keith & The Movies putting it as his “most anticipated” movie of 2013. This guaranteed I had to go out and see it when it hit the UK… and it’s now hit. In an extremely limited release! Coming off the back of a disappointing The Place Beyond The Pines, I was eager to see a movie that lived up to my expectations from its protagonists. Well, Mud did at least achieve that… but just didn’t hit all the high notes I was expecting.

Mud is the tale of two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who are growing up in the river communities of Alabama. Life’s pretty boring, but they love to explore, so they think all their dreams have come true when they find a boat lodged in a tree following a flood – their own private hangout. But the boat’s not entirely unoccupied. It’s here that they encounter the eponymous Mud (Matthew McConaughey) – he’s homeless, but don’t call him a hobo. What unfolds is Mud’s tale of why he is where he is – he’s murdered someone for treating his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) in a terrible manner. He’s on the run, and not just from the police, but from the dead guy’s family too… And our two young leads become embroiled in proceedings.

Mud (2013)

Let’s start off with what I really enjoyed about the movie, and that’s the acting. I felt that every actor was really pulling their weight here. A lot of credit has to go to Tye Sheridan for carrying the movie so well on his young shoulders. He really had to run the gamut of emotions in this movie and really captured the frustrations of being at that age – dealing with the confusing Mud situation and dealing with those pesky “love” emotions. Similarly, Jacob Lofland was ably suited to his role too; providing much of the comic relief in the movie. Not that there were laughs galore to be had, but he broke the tension well. But this is Matthew McConaughey‘s movie, yet again. His character, Mud, is a mysterious one. And thankfully it’s one that doesn’t rely on getting his top off (all the time… it does happen though), or smiling at the camera as McConaughey is so accustomed to. I’d argue that his performance here isn’t as startling as that of Killer Joe, or indeed A Time To Kill, but it’s still resoundingly strong. And before I leave this little “acting love-in”… Reese Witherspoon? Who’d have expected her to be doing some genuine acting too!?

The other thing I loved about the movie is it all just “fit” into place. It didn’t seem like a movie – it was like the cameras turned up and just captured the everyday lives of its inhabitants as they were. It’s hard to put this into words to accurately convey the feeling I had here, but the cinematography and direction by Jeff Nichols was suitably apt.

Mud (2013)

However, the film isn’t without its problems – crucially in pacing. The movie does drag its heels at several occasions and the film doesn’t need to be over two hours long. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It seems like the constant “fetch quests” that the boys went on carried on for far too long. This gave the impression that the film was somewhat directionless, as you couldn’t really see any plot progression aside from the fact that you wondered what was going to happen to McConaughey‘s character… at some point. All of this changed dramatically in the final 30 minutes, which was choc-full of action and drama. But for me, it was a case of “too little, too late”. The plotting was there, the script was there and the acting was definitely there. It’s just a shame the film became a little too enraptured with itself to really steam along at a brisk enough pace. Don’t get me wrong, I can do slow and lingering, but there’s a limit on this. Unfortunately, Mud went past that point.

Mud is another star turn for Matthew McConaughey, who’s picked up something of a habit of taking roles you wouldn’t have assigned to him half a decade ago. Whilst I wasn’t as blown away by Mud as I was by Joe in Killer Joe, this can still be classified as a success for him. Similarly, I want to see more from Tye Sheridan in the future. The kid’s got talent and I’m keen to see where he goes next. Unfortunately, the film trips itself up with its rather slow pacing, which makes the second act drag to an alarming degree. So, ultimately, Mud‘s a solid movie, but isn’t one I’d rush out to see again any time soon.

Why don’t more actors follow Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum? Take some of those wild and whacky roles. Take a risk! I want to see Megan Fox in a cerebral thriller about feminism, I want to see Tommy Lee Jones doing some slapstick comedy opposite Rob Schneider and I want to see Samuel L. Jackson… erm… what genre hasn’t this guy done!? OK, perhaps everyone should follow Jackson‘s lead and not the others’. Then they can all star in such fabulous movies as Snakes on a Plane, The Spirit and Deep Blue Sea… oh, wait…

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

2013 has seen a number of films promoted solely on the strength of their lead actors. This statement probably doesn’t seem that outrageous, as most films are pumped into your subconscious thanks to their leads. What’s more atypical about 2013 is the number of films that have missold you on these leads. The films that spring to mind most prominently? Side Effects and GI Joe: Retaliation. Funnily enough, both films pimped out Channing Tatum as a drawcard. Too bad his performances were… cut short, shall we say? Yes, cut short in both films. He shouldn’t have been sold as a ‘star’ of the movie, as he rivalled Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables for sheer brevity. So, we now come to The Place Beyond The Pines – another film that’s sold heavily on ‘featuring Ryan Gosling‘… I think you know where I’m going with this review, right?

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Briefly, The Place Beyond The Pines is set in Schenectady, New York – a place of no hope for many. Our ‘protagonist’ Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt bike rider with the travelling carnival. His stopover in the town reveals that on his last ’round’ he got a girl (Eva Mendez) pregnant and now actually has a kid… Wow, quite a revelation! So Ryan jacks in his job and decides to hang around. But how will he make his money? Bank robbery of course! This leads his life to crash into that of Avery – a local beat cop (Bradley Cooper)… And the story unfolds.

That description would be fair to summarise the first third of the film, as the film truly is chopped into three different stories focusing heavily on Gosling, Cooper and their respective sons Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. The trouble with this is that screen time is cut down a hell of a lot for all of them. Want your Gosling fix? 45 minutes. Cooper? 45 minutes? Others? Oh come on – you didn’t come here for the others did you? And this is the crux of the problem – you’ve come to the cinema for the two leads. You expect to see your two leads a lot!

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Gosling came onto my radar solidly with the 1-2 combo of Drive and Crazy Stupid Love. I thought he was fantastic in both and I couldn’t wait to see what he did next. But since then? A lacklustre showing in Gangster Squad. I’ll pass. Having said that, I thought that his screen time was used well here and he was almost back to his Drive form. Gos-worshippers will be glad to hear he once again gets his top off and he does, once again, look ripped. So add a star onto my score if that figures highly in your enjoyment of a movie!

Now let’s move to one of my favourite actors – Bradley Cooper. Many regular Film Phage readers will know I bloody love this guy. He’s been going from strength to strength with recent performances, and he was rightly nominated for an Oscar this year for the brilliant Silver Linings Playbook. The Place Beyond The Pines is another shining example of ‘new’ Cooper. The guy that’s not playing the jock, the bully or the cocky one. In fact, his character here is thrust into the limelight and he plays humble and worried with great vigour. Although I’m a fan, don’t think that I won’t criticise the guy… But he doesn’t merit it here. It just fuels my excitement for his next on-screen appearance, which I guess will be The Hangover: Part Three. Sure, it’ll be a return to his ‘roots’ (not Hot Wet American Summer roots – his first film… that was awful) but his cocky roots. Bring it, Brad.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

So after my gushing, let’s return on track. The real reason this film came unstuck for me was the erratic plot weaving. The writers have tried to be clever and weave a ‘sins of the father’ circle for the film, but it comes across bloated and messy to follow the three different, but interlinked, stories. I’d rather have just seen stories 1 and 2 expanded and skip over the third act altogether. That third act just kept on going, with a dissatisfying conclusion too. Nothing can spoil a movie more than a seemingly half-baked ‘open’ ending. The Place Beyond The Pines typifies this beautifully.

If you add this onto the fact that our stars only feature for a modicum of the overall running time and the film becomes incredibly frustrating. A frustration that is once again compounded by the previews and trailers for the movie that make it out to be an exciting film about bank heists… It is about bank heists. For about 30 minutes. Why do you do this to me Hollywood? Why do you get me so excited only to let me down at the last minute? It’s like promising me the most delicious, authentic pizza from northern Italy and only delivering me a slice of Bob’s Kebab World’s pizza that’s clearly fallen on the floor several times… You can’t tell I’m in Italy now can you?!

The Place Beyond The Pines promised a hell of a lot, but delivered remarkably little. It’s lead performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are strong but are ultimately undermined by the bloated plot and restricted screen time for them both. Once again, hype has got in the way of a movie for me, thanks to artistically edited trailers. Let’s try and be a bit more honest from now on ok?

So although The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t once again resign poor Channing Tatum to the cutting room floor at an early point, it does again play into a recurring theme of 2013 – false advertising. Next you’ll be telling me that Bradley Cooper‘s not actually in The Hangover: Part Three. Let me tell you this now – if that’s the case, you’re going to see one hell of an enraged Phage come the end of the month! Equally, if I don’t find some pizza in the next 30 minutes, we’re also going to have a problem here… Coops and pizza: my sedatives.

Phage Factor:

3 Star

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2013)

“You don’t go full retard.” These were Robert Downey Jr.‘s words in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. In the film he was referring to Ben Stiller‘s character Simple Jack, who was severely mentally handicapped to a charicature-style level. But the blacked up Downey Jr. raised a good point… it’s hard for Hollywood to tackle mental illness in an effective way, especially when you try to throw comedy into the mix. You don’t want the audience laughing at an illness, nor do you want them feeling ashamed of themselves for doing it either… but you do want them to laugh. So, enter Silver Linings Playbook – the latest film to tackle the tricky problem. But does it succeed?

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the post-psychiatric ward recovery of Pat (Bradley Cooper), as he goes about trying to improve himself to rekindle his marriage with his adulterous wife. But as he tries to get his life back on track, he runs (literally) into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – a girl who also has some of her own issues stemming from a difficult few years, who tries to help him in his pursuit. OK, so far so good… in fact, if you strip away the mental illness issue, you could probably say it sounds quite formulaic and generic. And it probably is to a certain extent. But that would be a disservice to what is a truly fantastic movie.

I’m a big fan of Bradley Cooper. A big fan. However, one criticism that could be levied at him in recent years is the type of role he’s cast in – the “cool” guy. See The Hangover, Limitless and The A-Team for example. But this is different and really allows him to flex his acting chops in an entirely new direction, which he runs with. Pat is a disturbed character who combines rage, tranquility and confusion as he tries to deal with his life post-incident that got him committed to psychiatric care. All of this is delivered with aplomb alongside some well delivered comedic moments. I was really taken with Cooper every time he was on-screen. A really engrossing performance.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Cooper & Lawrence: Effortless chemistry.

And whilst we’re talking about performances, let’s talk about Jennifer Lawrence. Wow. Now, I thought she was a good actress and her roles to date have been OK, but they’ve never really startled me. But Silver Linings Playbook really brings her to the front of my mind now, as she really owns her roles as the emotionally fragile Tiffany. The best parts of the film are when her and Cooper are firing back and forth at one another – not only do they deliver some of the funniest moments of the film, but they also harbor some of the most beautiful scenes too. Despite the fact that Lawrence is only 22 and Cooper is 37, this is never an issue as Lawrence is really acting beyond her years here.

So what of the plot? Although some of it is formulaic, it has enough nail-biting moments to keep you guessing to some degree; much in the same way that The Fighter (David O. Russell‘s last directorial effort) was ultimately predictable but a fantastic film. As I mentioned earlier, some films about mental illness try to incorporate comedic elements and I’m happy to say that Silver Linings Playbook uses them really effectively. Speaking of comedy, it’s great to see Chris Tucker also returning to the screen after a hiatus that has gone on way too long. Why isn’t he in more movies? I really only know him from Jackie Brown and the Rush Hour trilogy, and there’s good reason for that: he’s not been cast in much else. Come on Hollywood – I love this guy. You can ditch your obsession with Chris Rock and bring back Tucker! Although he’s not on screen for large swathes of time, he’s magic when he is. With Tucker you know what you’re going to get – laughs. Man, I miss seeing this guy on my screen.

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

One criticism of the film that could be made is the somewhat mish-mashed nature of the film: emotional one moment, but funny the next. It’s bi-polar, a lot like Cooper‘s character. But I don’t see this as a problem. Its shifts in tone are nowhere near as jarring as those in Due Date – where Zach Galifianakis delivers his comedic lines one second to only break into a very somber speech about his dead father. That was jarring. That was a hard gear change. This film does not have the same problem. It seems to ebb and flow in a very natural manner that never stalls.

And one final parting note – I’ve read that some people are confused by the American Football terminology thrown around in the film. Why? It’s not hard to follow, so don’t worry about that if these opinions concern you. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on football, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film about it. Hell, Moneyball is all about baseball, which I know very little about aside from the fact you have t-shirt cannons and drink a lot of beer whilst some guy spent 3 days swinging a bat and missing. But the fact it was about baseball and I have little knowledge of it had no bearing on my enjoyment of that film. The same is true here.

Silver Linings Playbook is one long constant silver lining. The chemistry and performances from Cooper and Lawrence are truly fantastic, with both of them showing acting skills that they’ve not had on display in recent efforts. Some will argue Cooper‘s performance is better, some will argue for Lawrence, but in my eyes they’re both on a par and really make this movie what it is. Although the plot isn’t too cerebral, it throws up enough “will it / won’t it” moments to keep you engaged with the film.

It sounds like Cooper and Lawrence have heeded Downey Jr.‘s somewhat non-PC advice from Tropic Thunder. The film deals with mental illness: not in a mocking way, but in a very endearing manner. It acknowledges the rage and downsides, but also fuses them with some truly tender and lovely moments. And once again, let’s hear it for Chris Tucker – I want to start the campaign for his return. Either with him coming back to scream “Leeeee, Leeeee you crazy!!” in Rush Hour 4, or in some other comedic vehicle. The world needs more of him. We should always go full Tucker.

Phage Factor:

4 Star