Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

12, 2013, Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn


Not a remake of the 1940's Danny Kaye classic, but a re-imagining of the short story that inspired it, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty bounced from hand-to-hand before settling in Ben Stiller's mitts. An actor/director not known to take the understated approach (he struck a pose in Zoolander and shot a war flick in Tropic Thunder), here he does just that both behind and in front of the camera; astounding for a film that features an outlandish sequence involving the central character daydreaming himself as a Benjamin Button figure, cradled in the arms of his 'young' love.

Stiller juggles most of the elements carefully, introducing characters to root for (the voice of Patton Oswalt's eHarmony customer rep pre-empts his later appearance) and others to boo at (step forward Adam Scott, clearly having a chuckle playing cocky company man Ted Hendricks) whilst providing genuine awe. Setting off around the world to find a missing negative taken by Sean Penn's mysterious photographer, Mitty - aloof daydreamer of elaborately heroic scenarios (segued into seamlessly) - begins an adventure of his very own. Tone-juggling, genre-shifting and with a finale that'll leave your heart warmer than a summer's day, this film could be Ben Stiller signalling to us all how he his career path is headed in an unexpected direction, and one tinted with intrigue.



Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

2013, 12, Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell

One of the most frustrating factors in biopics are usually the wasted opportunity to explore the most interesting of characters. 2013 was the year of Diana, remember. Conversely, there are those that present us with a blurred real-life figure who is shifted sharply into focus by an enthralling piece of cinema (George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind springs to memory.)

It's something of an alarm to realise that somebody whose life hasn't been placed under microscope and in front of camera is one whose very influence still shapes cinema today - Walt Disney; a powerhouse historical figure, who audiences would gladly delve into a film of... But be sure, Saving Mr. Banks is not it.

Instead, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) opts to show us the fortunately screen-friendly story of the legendary Mary Poppins' journey from the English page of P.L. Travers to the Hollywood studio of the moustachioed mouse-creating maestro. Uppity tea-sipping author Travers is played by Emma Thompson, an actress so adept at doing pretty much anything and achieving the desired response - here, she frustrates at her refusal to give up her novel to a bunch of savages who she's convinced would rip the pages to pieces and destroy the character she so lovingly crafted. Sitting in on - and recording every word of - the read-throughs with producer Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composing Sherman brother duo (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), these scenes shine with an air of irrationality, and will glisten with your giggle (ironic, considering their later assurance of hatred for Travers.) Thompson takes the irrefutably tough-to-like and difficult to encrypt author, and turns her near-stereotypically fuddity into a comedic flourish.

Yet this is very much a film of two halves. Providing context behind the creation of Mary Poppins ('never ever just Mary,' she scolds at one stage) and her longing to preserve the beloved character from becoming just another pretty woman who sings, are childhood flashbacks. Travers grew up on a ranch in Australia, where her father Mr. Banks (Colin Farrell) fed her fairytales and fantasies, whilst swigging bottles of alcohol and destroying his family on the sly. There's hints to quite a tragic upbringing, and moments in the film's present that correlate with specifics of the past, yet whenever we flit back to that ranch, the film loses the very magic ole' Walt would have ensured was there. They seriously endanger the fluidity of Saving Mr. Banks, despite some pleasant performances from Farrell and child actor Annie Rose Buckley.

Much like a Beatles fan gets joy from hearing original recordings of classic tracks, Mary Poppins fans can revel in seeing the creation of now-familial tunes. With much to love on the surface - genuine laughs, and a charmingly sweet appearance from Paul Giamatti as Travers' driver - and the closest the film allows her to have as a friend - the structure is toppled by the tedious reversion to backstory. Omitting these would have done the film some saving.