Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

January 13, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I love Ben Stiller’s best work, but his resume has been a little mixed in recent years. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a loose modern adaptation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber, is very much a Ben Stiller project (he directs, produces and stars), and it’s definitely some of his best work.

Stiller plays the titular character, a negative assets manager who manages photographs for Life magazine. He’s a meek and mild mannered introvert, a bit of a loner, someone who escapes the banality and drudgery of his existence by “zoning out” into one of his elaborate and vivid daydreams. Without giving too much away, Walter finds himself on an adventure which requires him to track down legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (wonderfully performed by Sean Penn) through a series of clues. Helping him out is his secret crush (Kristin Wiig), whom Walter has joined an online dating service for despite working together in the same office.

As his journey gets crazier and crazier, Walter’s fantasies diminish in frequency, and the film’s simple message become apparent. But getting to that point is a lot of fun because you never really know what to expect next, and Walter is such a likable character that he infuses the film with plenty of warmth (despite the freezing conditions) and heart.

Walter Mitty is a grand adventure, a big, epic physical and spiritual journey that takes Walter to several isolated and extremely beautiful places around the world. The film is filled with amazing special effects, not only during Walter’s fantasies but also throughout his travels. Conversely, it’s also an odd, quirky little film that is only loosely attached to reality, with plenty of serendipitous occurrences and strange coincidences, and a slightly surreal feel that brings up memories of The Truman Show (incidentally, they originally wanted Jim Carrey for the lead role).

The result is an ambitious film doesn’t always work, but enough of it worked for me to make Walter Mitty a special experience. And make no mistake, the film is very funny. There are moments of comic brilliance scattered throughout the 114-minute running time, with a few generating some real belly laughs, though arguably it could have been a more consistently hilarious movie had they focused more on the comedy rather than the poignancy of the drama.

The performances are really strong. Ben Stiller plays the kind of character we’re used to from him (by that I mean closer to There’s Something About Mary than Dodgeball or Tropic Thunder), and he’s very affable here, while Kristen Wiig provides an attractive love interest who is believable because she’s borderline in Walter’s league. A bearded Adam Scott is also very good as the office dickhead, and he seems to relish the opportunity to play such a role. Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn have small but important roles as Walter’s mother and daughter, while Sean Penn is brilliant as the enigmatic O’Connell. There are some very interesting minor characters, such as an online dating services rep (Patton Oswalt) who strikes up an unusual phone friendship with Walter, and the nutty Greenlandic helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who provides some of the best lines of the movie.

The ending of Walter Mitty was perhaps a little too neat and predictable for my liking, but apart from that I found myself captured by Walter’s imagination and his struggle for a more fulfilling life. The film has received mixed to polarising reviews, and I can understand that because it’s the type of movie where you either get caught up in the adventure and its characters or you don’t. I certainly did, which is why I think it’s one of the most likable and memorable movies of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 47 Ronin (2013) (2D)

January 5, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Every Keanu Reeves movie can be summed up with one word: “whoa.” Unfortunately, his latest, 47 Ronin, is not a good “whoa.” It’s not a horrible “whoa” either. On the one hand it wasn’t as rubbish as expected, though on the other it lacked the excitement of the crazy samurai action I had looked forward to.

I’ve been a fan of Keanu since the Paul Abdul Rush, Rush days — actually, even before that, back to the Bill & Ted era (“Socrates!”), but these days all the news we get from him are from people posting videos of him giving up his seat on the subway.

Anyway, while Keanu has been in movies in recent years, none of them high-profile since the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. That alone was reason to get me excited about 47 Ronin, supposedly based on a Japanese legend (one I didn’t know about until the credits rolled). If you’ve seen the trailers, however, you’ll know this film is set firmly in fantasy land, with witchcraft, mystical creatures and demons all part of the norm in its world.

Keanu plays Kai, a mysterious half-breed (half British, half Japanese) who was discovered in the woods and raised by Lord Asano, who has a whole bunch of samurai under his command. While he is a master swordsman who can duel with the best of them, Kai is not officially a samurai and is looked down upon by the samurai in town. One day a powerful Shogun arrives in town with Lord Kira, an evil dude with ambitions of ruling all of Japan. Kira is aided by a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi (last seen in Pacific Rimwho is so obviously a demon because of her different-colored eyes and demonic behaviour.

Anyway, yada yada yada, and Kai and the samurai are left without a master, thus rendering them ronin (ie, samurai without a master). The rest of the story is how they, led by Oishi (played by The Wolverine and The Last Samurai’s Hiroyuki Sanada) set about plotting their revenge. And there is a love story somewhere in there, with Lord Asano’s daughter Mika, who is in love with Kai, betrothed to Lord Kira.

The thing with 47 Ronin is that its silliness is only matched by how seriously it takes itself. There are almost no jokes in this movie, and all the laughs are unintentional, with the biggest ones coming from Rinko Kikuchi’s over-the-top performance as the witch. When there are colourful giant monsters roaming the land for no reason, a whole clan of monks who look like Voldemort living in the woods and massive samurai dudes with no face and act like robots, you would think they might have a bit of fun with it. But no. Instead, 47 Samurai is as straight as they come, which makes a lot of the drama hard to engage and difficult to swallow.

Speaking of drama, there was way too much of it in proportion to the action. I had expected 47 Ronin to about a bunch of badasses who travel the land doing justice against demons or whatever, but there was a lot of poorly executed “character development” which was completely pointless for a film like this. As a result, large portions of the film have little action and are focused on the limp romance and a long arc where the samurai trying to find swords — which is moronic considering Kai had just been to a place where he was shot at by GUNS! Hello? How about getting some of those instead?

Another struggle I had was listening to the Japanese actors trying to speak in English. It’s not that I had problems understanding what they said, but it was so obviously a struggle for some of them that it felt awkward sitting through. I guess at the end of the day it’s easier to make 50 Japanese actors speak English than trying to get Keanu to speak in Japanese. The special effects were also just OK in my opinion, a little fake in some areas though not to the point there it became a distraction.

For all its faults, 47 Ronin is passably entertaining for its 119-minute running time, which is actually more than I anticipated. There are a few solid action and battle scenes (though fewer than I expected) and some cool ideas and creatures that fans of feudal Japan and samurai manga/video games should enjoy. It’s just a shame that the script and direction sapped all the fun or adventure out of it, effectively wasting the interesting premise and potential for genuine excitement and thrills. They may have had the basic concept pointed in the right direction, but in the end, 47 Ronin fell well off the mark.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t even know this was available in 3D.

Post-Oscars Movie Blitz: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

July 11, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I have a bit of time on my hands right now, so I plan to get as much of my backlog cleared up
as possible.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the last of this year’s Best Picture nominees I’ll be reviewing. It was the critics’ darling because it was imaginative and original, made on a shoestring budget, and spearheaded by young Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest ever actress to receive a Best Actress nomination. Like the film, its success was a bit of a fantasy.

But I’ll be honest now and admit I didn’t love it. Well, more like I didn’t get it. At least not to the extent of those singing its praises.

It’s a hard film to outline. On a basic level, it’s about a five-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis, who was 6 when the film was shot) and her fragile and emotionally charged relationship with her deadbeat dad. They live in an isolated community in Louisiana (apparently they really exist) ravaged by poverty. Meanwhile there is this fantasy element: melting ice caps bringing to life these prehistoric animals that are now coming their way.

So yeah, it’s weird, and no one can say it’s unoriginal. It’s a allegorical story that is deeply personal but set against a wide backdrop, and you never really know what’s going to happen next. It’s driven primarily by Wallis’s remarkable performance, which is full of natural strength and a sense of wonder that a more seasoned child actor probably wouldn’t be able to pull off.

But unlike a lot of others, my emotional attachment to this film was not particularly strong. As interesting as it was to watch, I never felt fully satisfied and was often frustrated with the story. And that whole magic realism thing with the monsters? Didn’t get why it was necessary and what it truly added to the narrative.

I wish I enjoyed it more but I have to tell it like it is. Beasts of the Southern Wild, while scoring points for originality, creativity and raw performances, wasn’t the masterpiece I had expected it to be.

3 stars out of 5

New Year’s resolution 3: read more (classics and fantasy)

January 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Misc, On Writing

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in Library

I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to last year, but I blame that on the life-draining force that is parenthood, which makes sleep a priority over anything not baby-related. I blame that as well awesome TV series such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Most of all, I blame the turd that is the Fifty Shades Trilogy, which wasted a good part of my year and just about turned me off reading altogether.

This year, I am glad to say, I have already read two books (though I started one of them last year) and am halfway through a third. Reading really does help your writing in so many ways, including expanding your imagination and ability to visualize scenes, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I feel like I am already way behind because I didn’t read all that much once I hit high school, which I blame entirely on Sony (Playstation) and basketball.

Anyway, this year one of my resolutions is to read more. A lot more. I have already started executing my ‘no smartphone and read instead before bed’ plan, which is kind of working. I’m also trying to read whenever I can on public transport and even during lunch breaks at work.

A subset of that plan is to read more classics. I always find them daunting and often put them off in favour of trash like Fifty Shades or whatever commercial fiction is in fashion, but it’s time for me to discover why classics are classics. The last modern classic I read was probably Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (which I loved) and the last classic of any era I read was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (which, despite being told repeatedly that it was probably the most technically perfect book ever written, bored me to death).

The good thing is that many older classics are now out of copyright and free to download. My guess is I will attempt to tackle the easier ones first, like say Frankenstein or Dracula, or perhaps some Dickens. War and Peace and James Joyce will probably have to wait a few more decades.

The other of part of the goal is to read more fantasy to prepare myself to get back on the fantasy writing wagon. I have A Game of Thrones ready to go, and if that isn’t enough I might finally (re)try the original Sword of Shannara trilogy or Feist’s Magician.

I doubt I’m going to get through anywhere near what I’ve planned for myself but I sure am going to try.

Happy reading!

What kind of fantasy novel are you writing?

August 26, 2011 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing

Source: readingbookinfo.com

It’s been an exciting few weeks around here for an assortment of reasons I won’t go into, which means my catatonic fantasy novel is being pushed even further back in my list of ‘things I must work on soon’.

I started this novel about 10 years ago as a bored student who had read little fantasy and had zero idea what made a good fantasy novel and even less of an idea on how to write one.  And yet I wrote slabs here and there, developed character biographies, planned, planned and planned some more.  Most of the writing took place over the space of two years, but it’s been one of those projects that can get neglected for years at a time — and it has been.  I guess I am one of those millions of people out there who would love to reach their goal but haven’t yet been willing to (or developed the discipline to) put in the hard work necessary to get there.

My dreams of becoming a fantasy novelist are still very much alive, but the expectations are no longer the same.  Having now read more fantasy and with a better understanding of what makes a good book and how to produce one, it has actually gotten much harder to write.  I also know now what a difficult industry it is, how poorly the industry is performing right now, and how bleak the future is looking for the majority of aspiring novelists.   Not to say it can’t be done, but hard work alone won’t be enough.

Simply being a good writer and writing a great book isn’t going to cut it.  These days, it’s all about the market — and the marketing.  You really have to identify your target market and write specifically for that market.  Sometimes you get lucky and the book has cross-market potential (say Harry Potter), but if you don’t have a clear target market you’ll find it difficult to find a publisher willing to take you on (especially if you are not an established writer).

I find it’s a catch-22 situation: you want to write something that is different to what is already out there at the moment to distinguish yourself from the pack, but publishers are seldom willing to take on books that they can’t comfortably squeeze into a particular genre.

And that’s just to get published.  What about sales?  Of course, paranormal romance has been big since Twilight, and I suppose that’s not really fantasy any more because it kind of become a standalone genre.  It seems every second book on the shelf involves vampires, werewolves or other mythological creatures these days.

More recently, thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones, epic fantasy is starting to really pick up again, especially those with dark plots that feature demented themes and characters.

When I was in writing workshops, the general consensus was that if you want to sell these days, you ought to target the ‘young adult’ market.  According to Wikipedia, that’s roughly the ages of 14 to 21.  But apart from the Harry Potter clones (ie teenagers playing around with magic and magical worlds) and Twilight clones (ie teenagers falling in love with magical creatures), I can’t really think of any young adult fantasy sub-genres that have been hugely successful in recent years.

Every week I am coming across more and more people who are writing fantasy novels, and the majority of them either doing something generic or one of the above.  And that got me wondering — where the heck does my fantasy novel fit into all of this, and should I be doing anything to change it?

Back before I knew anything about anything, my intention was just to write a good fantasy yarn.  I thought I had a good story, a few interesting characters, and didn’t think about much else.  I suppose if I had a particular slant, it was to make the novel less like the sprawling fantasy epics that give me headaches just trying to decipher the blurb on the back cover.  I wanted to write something lighter, more straightforward and action-packed, like a thriller with a fantasy setting.  I wanted to appeal to the RPG geeks who like the idea the these fantasy worlds but are either too lazy or find it too tedious to read 1000+ pages for a good story.

I still want to keep that idea in tact, but I’m wondering whether I need to rewrite the damn thing so that it fits more into a particular category.  Because right now, it’s not really anything.  On the one hand, I could go ‘George RR Martin’ and make it a more ‘adult’ fantasy with more violence, gore, treachery and sex (and let’s face it, the geeks love that kind of stuff).  On the other hand, I could go the ‘young adult’ path and make my protagonists younger, make the story slightly more sanitised, and maybe even throw in a little more romance.

They would make completely different books, but I can’t figure out which one would be more appealing to the wider market.

Anyway, that’s my aimless rant for the day.  If you too are writing a fantasy novel, what kind of fantasy is it?  Does it follow the trodden path of those before you, or is it something drastically different?  Are you writing with a specific target market in mind or do you not care?  And what makes you think your novel is special enough to be published or potentially become a bestseller?

 
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