Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

There are certain actors I really respond to and movies that I anticipate because of their involvement. However, for some reason Ben Stiller has never really been one of those actors for me. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed some movies of his and one of my favorite comedies is probably Zoolander. I just don't tend to mark a Ben Stiller movie on my calendar as one that I really need to (or even want to, for that matter) end up seeing. Having said that, the trailer for this film instantly grabbed me when I first saw it a few months ago. It was due more to the visual style and the fantastic song by Of Monsters and Men that drew my attention than Stiller, but I knew this was one I was going to see in the theater.

Walter Mitty is a middle-aged dreamer and not the most adventurous type. Working as a negative analyst for the soon to be web-based Life magazine, Walter is entrusted with a very important negative, a picture taken by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell. When the crucial negative #25 (which will serve as the cover of Life's final issue) is missing from the rest of the reel, however, Walter is encouraged by his coworker and crush Cheryl Melhoff to go on a journey to retrieve this lost photo. With his job on the line in the wake of the company's new direction, Walter decides to embrace life as he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure.

Self-discovery seems to be a big theme in Walter Mitty, and I wonder if this is the new direction Ben Stiller is hoping to take in his future films. Sort of a melding of independent creativity with big-budget spectacle, this film does a pretty good job of portraying and connecting the relationship between Watler's job, his family, his imagination and his newfound reality throughout his journey. On one hand, it's a solid juggling act Stiller does to balance all of these aspects while ensuring the themes are all served in the narrative. Part of where this film loses me, however, is its tendency to indulge in Walter's in-the-moment experiences that never quite translate the character's feelings to the audience. While the story strands and conceptual structure of the film work well, it doesn't really tell us anything that profound about Walter.

Thankfully the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, which allows me to forgive a lot of my complaints about its lack of emotional resonance. Stiller has great comedic instincts, and the subtleties of his performance and his engaging awkwardness often help the movie work much better than it probably should. He and Kristin Wiig do a great job of creating a believable chemistry between their characters while not taking the comedy or even the drama too far.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ended up being more or less what I expected. It was an artistic story about making your dreams a reality by stepping out of your comfort zone, and I think pretty much anybody can relate to that. Even though I wasn't particularly moved by Walter's arc as a whole, there are a few moments of poignancy (mostly involving Sean Penn's character) that definitely made the journey worth it. This movie is pretty funny, the characters are likable and the story is probably the best that Ben Stiller has ever directed. I give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty three stars.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2

As I mentioned in my feature for this film, the original Anchorman was one of the most influential and quotable comedies of the last decade. It cemented Will Ferrell as a comedy king and greatly increased the exposure of supporting stars like Steve Carell. It's a double-edged sword coming back to such a beloved film. The popularity of the project will surely make the sequel profitable, but expectations might be difficult to live up to as well. With that in mind, I tried to temper my expectations going into this film and merely hoped for an entertaining diversion.

Ron Burgundy seems to have it all. He and his wife Veronica are a high-profile news anchor team, poised to fill an impending vacancy in the prime-time slot. When it becomes clear that the studio is only interested in Veronica, however, Ron goes into a downward spiral which culminates in his leaving his family. Constantly inebriated and suffering an existential crisis, Ron hits rock-bottom in the locker room of San Diego's Sea World where he's relegated to introducing the dolphin show. Thankfully, someone offers Ron a chance at redemption with a spot at the Global News Network, which introduces the world to the first ever 24-hour news service. With no other options and a hefty advance payment, Ron must reunite his news team to restore his reputation and make history yet again as the legend continues.

Again, this plot summary only covers the first 10-15 minutes of the film, so rest assured no spoilers have been revealed. You might not expect a comedy film like this to have "spoilers" per se, but indeed there are many moments in this film that work so much better if the audience doesn't see what's coming. One thing I should probably state right off the bat is that this movie is freaking hilarious! Fans of the first film will not be disappointed with this sequel as far as the humor is concerned, which is pretty much all that matters in films like this. The jokes are almost non-stop, and thankfully they're (mostly) a lot more inventive and clever than what we've seen in the trailers.

Having said that, I find that Ferrell has a tendency to over-do certain jokes and push the crudeness envelope to a slightly uncomfortable level. Anchorman 2 is no exception, and there are definitely moments where this film goes to crazy town. As funny as I feel this movie is, I don't think it's meant for all to enjoy equally. People over the age of 40 might not enjoy the style of humor as it's far more catered to the 20's and 30's crowd. That being said, they may understand some of the social commentary from the time period this movie is set, where that could just go over the heads of younger viewers.

It's surprisingly difficult to critique comedies, as to a certain extent they are the most subjective kinds of movies. Either you laugh at a joke or you don't, there's not really anything to judge beyond that. However, there are general story-telling nits I could pick in this film. Some of the subplots are completely arbitrary and seem thrown in without any intention beyond setting up gags. It also tends to lean a little too heavily on the reputation of its predecessor, relying on in-jokes and call-backs as opposed to creating new material.

Even with those criticisms thrown in, this is still a ridiculously fun time at the theater. It may be a little crude for some, but for fans of the original Anchorman, this film is pretty much all you could have asked for in a sequel. There are tons of hilarious cameos, clever exchanges and one-liners to the point that it will take multiple viewings to even process all of the humor intricately woven into this 2 hour comedy. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's exactly what I expected and mostly what I hoped for. Time will tell how this sequel compares with the legacy of the original. I recommend Anchorman 2 and give it a very strong three stars.

ANCHORMAN 2 is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coming Soon: Anchorman 2!

Release Date: December 20, 2013
Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate
Running time: 119 minutes

With the 70's behind him, San Diego's top-rated anchorman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), returns to the news desk in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Also back for more are Ron's co-anchor and wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), weather man Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), man on the street Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd) and sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) - All of whom won't make it easy to stay classy while taking the nation's first 24-hour news channel by storm.

One of the most memorable and quotable comedies of the twenty-first century is finally getting the long-awaiting sequel we've all been hoping for since 2004! For years the cast of Anchorman have teased a possible reunion, with even a couple of false starts keeping the expectations of fans at the breaking point. After eight years, some might think the novelty would have worn off, but clearly fans of the original are clamoring for the sequel's release later this week.

This film, like the original "Legend of Ron Burgundy", stars a comedic tour-de force of Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner. While the last film marked a break-out performance from cast members like Carell, the stars have only increased in fame and demand since 2004 (surely one of the contributing factors to the delay of the film's release). When asked about what made them want to return to this sequel when they virtually had their pick of roles, Paul Rudd said, "For me, mainly it was like working with these guys again who I love... it was such a blast doing the first one that... I would jump at the chance to come back and beat a dead horse."

Carell responded in a similar fashion. "I think we all felt exactly the same way. We all just wanted to do it for the sake of doing it, and I think we all would have done it in a vacuum. Even if there was no camera, we would have come back and done it, because it's so much fun." Clearly this is a sentiment shared by fans, as Carell can hardly go anywhere without lines from his Anchorman character, Brick, being shouted at him. "I love lamp," he said simply, when asked which line was quoted to him most. Even when doing public shoots for things like The Office, Carell is still besieged by rabid fans of his work in the first Anchorman film.

Koechner, Rudd, Ferrell, and Carrell (from left to right)

With all of the hype and build-up for this sequel, it's easy to assume that all of the stars are merely coasting on the good will of the first film. It seems fairly common-place for comedies to not only bring nothing new to the table, but to commit the cardinal sin of showing the funniest scenes (and often the only funny scenes) in the trailer. While this film's trailer does boast some hilarious moments, Carell assures us that there are plenty of great scenes in store. "There's so much more," he said. "You know, you look at the trailer and you think, wow... they put everything in that they could and that's the entire movie. But there's so much more than is in the trailer, and funnier. So, I'm kind of psyched about the whole thing."

Fans who may be tentative about the film need look no further than the entire creative team's return as well as a cavalcade of new faces and talents (not to mention almost twice the production budget of the first film). With tickets pre-selling in droves and hungry fans desperate for more from Ron Burgundy and company, it's safe to say that Anchorman 2 is shaping up to be the comedy hit of the year. Anchorman 2 is being released nationwide on December 20th. Empty seats may be hard to come by, so be sure to get your tickets now!

*For more information about this film, please visit the official Anchorman 2 web site.

For the full interview with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, click here!

<-- (Don't forget to click a theatre link to find showtimes of Anchorman 2 in a theater near you!) 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Last year I attempted to describe the depth of my fandom for The Lord of the Rings films during my review of An Unexpected Journey. I bring this up now because I really care about films set in Peter Jackson's LOTR universe. If you see my "List" section above, you'll see that the original trilogy are some of my all-time favorite films. While I definitely enjoyed the first film as my review indicated, I felt that it would certainly improve in the subsequent installments of the trilogy. With the marketing campaign for The Desolation of Smaug focusing heavily on the titular dragon and the promise of a more action-packed experience, I had pretty high expectations for this movie going into the screening.

Having narrowly escaped Azog the Defiler (the pale orc from the last film) and still on their way to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins and company are forced to brave the treacherous paths of Mirkwood. Gandalf, being drawn to the seemingly abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, promises to meet up with the company at the gates of Erebor, though he warns them not to enter the mountain without him. Frustrated at this apparent abandonment, Bilbo and the dwarves are overcome by the forest's enchantments, leading them in circles and right into a frightening encounter with several massive arachnids. They narrowly escape the spidery hoard only to be taken captive by the king of Mirkwood, even as an army of orcs surround the fortress intent on finishing the vengeful job Azog began...

It might seem like I'm giving away a large portion of the plot, but honestly this only encapsulates the first twenty minutes of the nearly three hour long film. This is truly an action-packed spectacle that deepens mysteries introduced from the first film while introducing even more intriguing sub-plots and intricacies. Peter Jackson seems to have saved the best material for these final two installments, as The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over An Unexpected Journey (which I still enjoyed quite a bit). As I suspected last time, each story is setting up an elaborate domino pattern that will either pay out in next year's conclusion or in the Lord of the Rings films we know and love.

As I hinted at in my marginal plot summary, there is a scene in this film with dozens of massive spiders. For those with arachnophobia (like my wife, Lara), it may be a little unpleasant. She said it was like her nightmares were coming to life, which is certainly a compliment to the realistic visual effects by Weta. The effects across the board have been upgraded in this film and all of the beasts depicted here (we'll get to the big one later) are very convincing. Having said that, at times the 3D in this film does detract from the seamless integration of the effects. Though this isn't a problem unique to this film, for smoother quality I still think it's best to see it in a traditional 2D format if possible.

The scale of this film is much larger than last time, even approaching the scope of the Lord of the Rings films at certain points. That said, this Hobbit trilogy (so far) just isn't quite as epic or as strong as those films. The only thing that disappoints me going into these movies is the constant comparison to the incomparable greatness of the Lord of the Rings. It's a shadow that seems endless, so the fact that it doesn't quite match up is more of a testament to the mastery of the prior trilogy than the weaknesses of the Hobbit. Truly, its almost an unfair comparison since The Hobbit isn't the same thing as The Lord of the Rings, so I can allow myself to judge it for what it is. This one is definitely more of a serious film than last year's An Unexpected Journey, which is surely an improvement for most LOTR fans.

No matter what some people might say about this film, there is one thing that everyone should be able to agree on - Smaug. The titular dragon had so much build-up and so little exposure that expectations were through the roof for his inevitable appearance in this film. As Bilbo states in the trailer, Smaug is "stupendous". Voiced (and motioned) by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug might be the coolest character in the entire Tolkien universe. Certainly in this incarnation, he's unequivocally the greatest dragon ever put to film. Cumberbatch's voice is absolutely perfect for the beast, and his facial expressions are captured alarmingly well. He's sinister, devilishly clever, and terrifying in his enormity. I've read that he embodies the evil tendencies of every race in Middle Earth, and it's totally true. If there is one reason to see this film, it's Smaug.

Overall, this is quite an achievement. There isn't a moment in this film where I wasn't enjoying what I was seeing, and the ending is truly spectacular (though it might frustrate some viewers with its abruptness). The stage is set for next year's There and Back Again, and after seeing this movie I cannot wait! I wholeheartedly recommend this film to anyone who even slightly enjoyed the last one, and if I can swing it, I'll definitely be seeing this again in theaters. It's tempting to give this movie four stars, but I'll settle for an extraordinarily strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

*Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of the latest film in The Hobbit trilogy!