Friday, June 27, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Ben Stiller is an actor that I truly don't care for. He, like other comedian actors, is cast in the same irritating role over and over again. It's pretty rare when one of these comedies actually garners a chuckle out of me. Stiller has done a few movies that were tolerable, but overall I avoid him. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) was a highly publicized movie that sported some incredible visuals.  It was also not an over the top comedy. Will Farrell partially redeemed himself in my book with the drama Stranger than Fiction, so I thought I'd give Stiller a chance to do decent drama as well.
The manager of the negative assets sector of Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been working there for sixteen years and has a tedious life, not going anywhere but from his home to his job and back. He is an escapist, daydreaming into a world of fantasy many times a day. Walter has a crush on the recently hired Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), but is too shy to invite her on a date and is trying to contact her through eHarmony, and online dating website. The magazine is preparing to release the last printed edition before going digital and the loathsome manager of transition, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), is preparing an inevitable downsizing over the next few days. Walter has been the liaison between the magazine and the mysterious independent photographer Sean O'Connel (Sean Penn) that has sent to him a package of negatives. Sean also suggests to the senior management the use of the negative 25 for the cover of the last edition. However Walter cannot find the negative. Walter has no means of contacting Sean and finds a clue that he might be in Greenland. Walter takes action in the real world by embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could ever have imagined.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty stars and was directed by Ben Stiller. That's got to be very hard to direct and be the star actor of a movie. The role of actor and director are both demanding and taking on both roles at once should be an indication of a person's talent. Ben Stiller certainly is talented, I just think a lot of his typecast roles are annoying. When Will Farrell starred in a drama, he really let his talents as an actor shine. Similarly, Stiller allowed himself to showcase some above average directing skills as well as depict an interesting character when he's not bogged down by cheap, juvenile humor.
Walter Mitty is painstakingly stylish, but I don't think that's necessarily bad. The camera work and visual effects were phenomenal to say the least. Even when Walter is daydreaming of something fantastic, like jumping into a burning building to save a baby, CGI effects are obviously used. But it's so seamlessly integrated that you aren't always drawn to the fact that it is computer rendered special effects. The camera work was very artistic and visually pleasing, yet there are some shots that look so artistically aesthetic that it distracts you from what is actually going on in the scene. A good shot should keep you focused on the dialogue or action while still impressing the audience visually. The shots I'm referring to here made me feel like Stiller was shouting, "look how much work went into this shot!" so much so that I didn't always catch the important bits of dialogue. The movie looks good, but almost distractingly so.
The weakest point in Walter Mitty is the writing. It desperately attempts to captivate this carpe diem philosophy; it wants to grasp this idea but ends up being esoteric and vague. Try as it might, the script simply doesn’t lend itself to enough boldness to get that point across in a profound way. It weakens the overall impact of the story. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good, it simply isn’t as deep as it would like us to think it is.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visually fantastic movie. The special effects are beautiful, the camera work is good if a little pretentious. It is an ambitious film, but it fails to back up its grand designs with enough substance to anchor this spectacle and keep it from drifting off into light-hearted whimsy. This is probably my favorite Ben Stiller movie and it was good to see him acting in a counter typecast role. I think this movie is worth seeing because of the great visuals and camera work, just don’t get your hopes up for something life changing. You won’t be missing a great piece of cinema if you opt not to see it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Bucket List Review

There are a number of movies that find humor, albeit of a bitter and sardonic nature, in cancer. It's a touchy subject for a lot of people, so making a light of it is risky business. While the "dramedy" movie The Bucket List (2007) tries to find some levity in a pair of terminal cancer patients, it will probably offend actual cancer patients more than entertain or uplift.
Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a corporate billionaire who is currently sharing a hospital room with blue-collar mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). Though initially the pair seem to have nothing in common, conversation gradually reveals that both men have a long list of goals they wish to accomplish before they kick the bucket, and an unrealized desire to discover what kind of men they really are. But one can't accomplish such lofty objectives from the confines of a hospital bed, so now in order to live their lives to the absolute fullest, Edward and Carter will have to make a break for it. With a checklist that includes playing poker tables in Monte Carlo, racing the fastest machines on four wheels, and much more, these two terminally ill men will do their best to fit a lifetime of experience into their last remaining days while forging an unlikely, but remarkable, friendship.
I've lost a couple of family members to cancer and have had a few friends and contacts who have recovered from it. Having seen what they go through, I feel like I can safely say that these two characters are suffering from a cancer that is nothing like cancer. I have had non-cancer related surgery, and I can only imagine recovery being far worse with a cancer surgery. I cannot for the life of me imagine that during convalescence after such surgery that climbing the Himalayas would be something to put on ones' bucket list. More realistic bucket list items might include keeping down a full meal, having a triumphant bowel movement, keeping your energy up in the afternoon, or letting your loved ones know you love them. Seriously, I imagine that if The Bucket List were shown in hospital cancer treatment wards, there would be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens.
Seeing Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the same movie was pretty fun. Both are phenomenal actors, and they did a great job here. It was a good performance given the material they had to work with, anyway. The movie opens with yet another voiceover narration by Morgan Freeman, praising the virtues of a white person who deserves our reverence. That works well in movies like The Shawshank Redemption, but not when he is talking about a character played by Jack Nicholson, for whom lovability is not a strong suit. Carter is faithfully married to his loving wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd), and has very simple and conservative values. Edward, after four divorces, has no restraints, plenty of regrets, and uses his generosity to mask egotism, selfishness, and the imposition of his goofy whim on poor Carter. As the two travel the world they have pseudo-profound conversations about 'The Meaning of It All'  and Carter's superior humanity begins to soak in for the petulant Edward. The characters are predictable but without the A-list actors portraying them, the script could have been much worse.
There are a few good things that The Bucket List does. Those pseudo-profound conversations do make you think fleetingly about life and death. For me it was just enough to remind me how uncomfortable a topic it is to think about. There is a scene where Edward and Carter are in Egypt and Carter talks about the two questions the ancient Egyptians believed they were asked upon getting to heaven; have you found joy in your life, and has your life brought joy to others. Edward responds to the second question with a story about protecting his daughter from an abusive relationship which caused her to never speak to him again. This scene caused me to reflect on my relationship with others and also illustrates how judging the quality of a person is a complicated thing that is subject to many different perspectives. These few thought-provoking moments aren't as profound as the movie would like us to think they are, but they do manage to prompt some personal reflection.
The Bucket List is about two old codgers who are not much like real people, who are suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and set off on an adventure that is not within the realm of possibility. The characters are predictable and weak, even if they are portrayed by excellent actors. I still can't look at Jack Nicholson without seeing The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. The script is weak, but still tugs at your heartstrings every now and then. It gets you to reflect on your life, but isn't as deep as it wants us to think it is. It is a comedy-drama and is worth a few laughs. The writers for this script had to be very optimistic and know basically nothing about this very serious illness; the drama in this movie is about as cheap as most sitcom clich├ęs. Having said that, I might consent to see The Bucket List a second time since it's not flat out awful, but it's not worth buying a copy.

There are some decent movies about cancer patients, none of which are based on Nicholas Sparks novels. What are some good ones that you've seen? I heard 50/50  was excellent. Comment below and tell me about good movies about cancer patients that you've seen!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Maleficent Review

When Disney released a picture of Angelina Jolie in costume to promote the upcoming Maleficent (2014) movie, everyone went bonkers over it! It was a simple close-up that showcased the Disney villain's iconic headgear and face. I admit even I was instantly psyched to see it. But a movie starring a villain sounded like a gutsy move for Disney. It had potential to screw up a classic character, or to be dynamic and interesting. Incidentally, it did neither.
A beautiful, pure-hearted, winged young woman, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), had an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom until one day an invading army threaten the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal - an act that begins to turn her pure heart into stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces a battle with the invading king's successor, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and as a result places a curse upon the newborn infant Aurora. Raised by three bumbling pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, & Juno Temple), Aurora (Elle Fanning) is caught in the middle of a seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic action that will change both worlds forever - and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.
I constantly hear praise for Maleficent as being a feminist take on the classic fairy tale. I don't think that's the case. Feminism, as I understand it, is the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of equality. That's a great thing to advocate! But the three main male characters are really awful for different reasons. King Stefan is a power hungry monster who will walk all over anyone to reach his goals; Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is the most vapid and pointless character in the movie, almost as if he inconveniently wandered on set while the cameras were rolling for two very short scenes; and while Maleficent's shape-shifting crow, Diaval (Sam Riley), has enough spine to voice an opinion once in a while, he's basically a subservient toady. Demonizing or controlling men is not what feminism is about. However, most of the women characters in Maleficent are at least as simple and ridiculous as the men are. Ultimately, I don't think feminism plays a particularly significant role for or against.
Maleficent has a fantastic and even romantic fairy tale vibe. It's some high end fantasy and often feels like a classic fairy tale that I was unfamiliar with. The classic Disney fairy tales usually started out with the camera focusing on a book with a brief narration to introduce the story. In Maleficent, there is a narrator that sounds like a sweet grandmotherly lady reading to us a bedtime story. I liked the narrator at first, but it quickly became evident that the narrator was being overused. The narration delivered a lot of exposition telling us things that the movie should be showing us rather than telling us, and it robbed the characters of development. We're told what Maleficent was doing and shown Jolie in dramatic poses instead of showing her do these things. It weakened the story and the characters by not letting us see the changes these characters are going through.
The major draw for Maleficent was to see Angelina Jolie play Maleficent. She looked amazing! The costume was perfection itself. Her makeup and prosthetics really helped sell this Disney icon. Those cheekbones could cut a person if they weren't careful. Jolie looked, sounded, and acted the part so beautifully, it was almost chilling. As Maleficent tries on this "evil" role as she seeks revenge, she genuinely looks scary! Apparently, Jolie in full costume was so intimidating that they couldn't get young child actors to go near her. The only one unafraid was Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Angelina's six-year-old daughter, who was used to play young Aurora so that the two characters could be in close proximity. Here's a clip to help illustrate how amazing Jolie is in this role:

The visuals were plentiful and detailed, but they relied heavily on CGI and 3D effects. I'm certain most of the scenes were done in front of a green screen. It lacked heart and made everything feel even more artificial than a fantasy movie already seems. The pixies who resembled the Three Stooges looked awful and were very irritating. I'm sure the garish colors and flashy CGI was used to draw in audiences, but it failed to impress me.
Overall, Maleficent was okay. With only her voice and sense of bearing, Jolie effortlessly makes the notoriously wicked fairy seem real. No one else involved in Maleficent seems to have that magic. It was weird to see this powerful classic Disney villain depicted as a heroine who lapses into villainy. Reconstructing one of the most evil animated characters of all time this way didn't necessarily ruin the iconic Disney character, but it certainly didn't do her any favors. I want to say the story would have been better had it not used preexisting characters and changed their story, but then there would be no real attraction to see this movie. I still think Maleficent is worth seeing, just to see Jolie play this role so incredibly well. This is a good movie to watch as a family, and with a PG rating it's not too scary for young kids. I daresay it's more tame than the original 1959 Sleeping Beauty. It's not good enough for the cost of a theater ticket; it's a renter.

After seeing Maleficent, are you anxious to see the upcoming live-action Cinderella remake? It's set to release in 2015. Comment below and tell me why or why not!

Friday, June 6, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past Review

The X-Men film franchise has possibly been the longest running superhero film series after The Marvel Cinematic Universe which comprises all the movies surrounding The Avengers. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) acts as a sequel to both X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class, it's the seventh X-Men movie, and ties the original trilogy and prequel together beautifully. It's also the best film in the franchise in my opinion!
Sentinels, robots that were created for the purpose of hunting down mutants, were released in 1973. 50 years later the Sentinels would also hunt humans who aid mutants. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his X-Men try their best to deal with the Sentinels but the modern robots they face are able to adapt and deal with all mutant abilities. Xavier decides to go back in time to change things. He asks Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can send a person's consciousness into the person's past, to send him back, but she can only send someone back a few weeks because if she sends someone back further it could harm them. So Logan (Hugh Jackman) decides to go back himself because his healing powers might be able to withstand it. Xavier tells Logan that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is responsible for the Sentinels' adaptive powers. When she learned about the Sentinels, she sought out and killed Bollivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the man who created them. Xavier also tells Logan that Mystique would be caught and studied, and her shape-shifting abilities would be added to the Sentinels, thus granting them the ability to adapt. Logan must go to the younger Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and ask him to help; the problem is that Xavier was despondent at the time and was taking a drug which allows him to walk but takes away his powers. Logan is asked to find young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and enlist his help also to prevent the Sentinels from ever being created.
Days of Future Past has a huge cast. A lot of actors return to reprise their roles from other films in the franchise, some as main characters and others as brief cameos. We also get a lot of new faces, too. Peter Dinklage is a actor born with achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism, and is known for his role as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones series. In Days of Future Past, he's the main antagonist, and is a business man through and through. He sees a potential to market something and is literally creating a threat out of mutants, who are virtually unheard of in the 1970's. He has no real hatred of mutants himself; he's just trying to market a product and goes to several countries' governments trying to sell his robots. I don't recall the original Trask having dwarfism, but Dinklage plays the role beautifully.
Another new face is Evan Peters as Quicksilver. This is a different actor portraying the same character we saw in the post-credits scene in Captian America: The Winter Soldier. Disney owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe while Fox owns the rights to X-Men, so these two versions of Quicksilver are not actually connected to each other. I wish Quicksilver was in the movie more; he was a really fun character. He can think and move at supersonic speeds, and is annoyed that nothing else moves at the same speed he does. The way he uses his powers is remarkable and creative, and he provides some comic relief to the movie.
The special effects in Days of Future Past were phenomenal. The 1970's Sentinels looked a lot like how a big robot from the 70's would look, while the future Sentinels were downright terrifying. In fact, future Sentinels were possibly some of the scariest movie killer robots I can think of; easily on par with the Sentinels from The Matrix series or the T-800 from The Terminator. The action scenes were fantastic, though a couple scenes with the future Sentinels were pretty violent. Had some shots lasted a little longer or if they had been much more graphic, the movie could have received an R rating. It did not, of course, but they were kind of pushing it. I suppose that dismembering someone made of metal is considered less graphic than dismembering someone made of flesh. Either way, I'd be mindful of the age of any kids you take to see this movie.
Time Travel stories can get really confusing with alternate time lines, paradoxical dichotomies, and questioning determinism and free will. This one is actually pretty straight forward. That's not to say the story is simple, it just doesn't become needlessly complex due to the time travel element. Having said that, there are a couple of continuity errors between this and other X-Men movies. This is such a good and solid movie that I have decided to believe that those continuity errors were put in place for the sole purpose of correcting really bad story decisions in previous movies. Days of Future Past is a solid story on its own.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is probably my favorite X-Men movie to date. It ties all the other movies together, tells a really good story, features some excellent acting, interesting characters, and some fun cameos from familiar characters. This is such a satisfying X-Men movie that if they were to end the franchise here, I would have nothing to complain about. They won't be ending the franchise here; stick around for a post-credit teaser. While Days of Future Past is great, it's not a particularly good place to start watching the X-Men movies. Make sure you watch X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class, and maybe Wolverine before diving into this one. You needn't bother with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that movie was really terrible and doesn't influence the story line here. I recommend catching Days of Future Past in theaters if you can. It's also worth owning once it hits Blu-Ray.

There are still a lot of X-Men storylines and characters that movies can showcase, what would you like to see in an upcoming X-Men film? Comment below and tell me about it!