Movie Review ~ Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

mandela_long_walk_to_freedomThe Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto

Director: Justin Chadwick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s worth it to admit that I wasn’t very well versed in the life story of Nelson Mandela before I saw this film at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Fest.  Though I was aware peripherally of his imprisonment for 27 years and his rise to power as President of South Africa, I didn’t have the knowledge of his journey before he was jailed and what moved the man to become a voice of his people.

Though portions of Mandela’s life have been committed to film before (2009’s snoozer Invictus and 2011’s barely released and badly received Winnie, among others), no film had truly gone into detail on the man who led a nation out of apartheid.  After taking in this biopic adapted by William Nicholson (Les Misérables) from Mandela’s own autobiography I’m not sure the full story has been told, or could be told, on the life of a great leader.

It could be that the life of Mandela (who died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95) was just too big to be confined to one film and perhaps two separate movies were warranted to really get to the heart of the man.  Though director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) does a good job of keeping several large pieces in play the film does have the tendency to get away from all involved which can leave the audience coughing up dust as years fly by in rapid succession.  More than a few times I lost track of the timeline, relying only on the impressive age make-up to help pinpoint where in Mandela’s life we were.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of British actor Idris Elba (Prometheus, Pacific Rim) and the actor disappears fully into the character even though he rarely, if ever, resembles Mandela.  It says something about the strength of a performance if an actor can convince you they are playing a real life historical figure without bearing much resemblance to said person.  (For the other end of the spectrum look at Tom Hanks’s off the mark performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks).  Elba is aided by having Mandela’s speaking voice down pat and some very fine prosthetic make-up but he doesn’t rely on either, um, either.  Elba continues to be one of the more underrated actors working in Hollywood today and I’m waiting for the actor to truly get his big break.  The strength of his performance here is akin to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, that is to say he’s giving a great performance in what amounts to an average film.

Giving great support to Elba is Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela.  The film is best when Elba and Harris are on screen together and we can watch how the two were initially attracted to each other and how their political beliefs eventually drove them apart.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t get sidelined with any sort of love story angle but it succeeds in giving equal time to Winnie’s own struggles during the time that Mandela was imprisoned.

At 139 minutes, the movie doesn’t feel long but comes up short with content that fails to go any deeper than anything you could have read in a book or an online resource.  It all felt very book report-ish rather than plumbing the depths of a true biopic of a man with many layers.  Mandela’s early years are given short shrift in favor of a more politic heavy final three quarters and I found myself wanting to know more about his family and origins because these tend to be the parts of a life that are least reported on.

When all is said and done the film is worth a watch for the performances of Elba and Harris and the chance to learn more about Mandela himself during his later years…but viewers looking for an in-depth look at Mandela’s life as a whole will be left wanting more.

Movie Review ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A day-dreamer escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie you should see in the theaters on the biggest screen possible.  There…I wanted to get that out of the way first and foremost because I know there are some people that want to know if a movie is something they should make the effort to see in theaters or if it’s one they should wait on until it’s available for home consumption.  And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is surely one that will be enjoyed in a movie theater where the picture is clear and the sound is booming.

That’s because director Ben Stiller, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (I Don’t Know How She Does It), and composer Theodore Shapiro (Hope Springs) have collaborated well to deliver a movie that looks, sounds, and more importantly FEELS good…and one that some posited would never be made.

Loosely adapted by Steve Conrad from the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t align much with the 1947 Danny Kaye film of the same name, jettisoning the earlier films central plot and replacing it with Stiller’s nebbish take on Mitty as a Life magazine photo editor journeying all over the world to track down a single frame of film that is to be used on the cover of the last edition of Life magazine.  Adding some wrinkles to this journey is Walter’s tendency to have grand flights of fancy where he says the right thing, wins the girl (Kristen Wiig, Girl Most Likely), and battles back the juvenile antics of his haranguing boss (Adam Scott, Friends with Kids).  These daydream-y moments pepper the first half of the film but gradually begin to be supplanted by Walter’s real life adventures, which far surpass anything he could have imagined – giving the whole film a dream-like element that had me wondering more than once if it was all happening in his mind (I won’t give you an answer to that question…you’ll have to decide for yourself).

The film has been pretty unfairly criticized for looking TOO good, more like a well produced Super Bowl commercial than an actual film and I can’t say I agree with that at all.  Yes, the cinematography is brilliantly uncluttered, deftly showcasing some beautiful foreign vistas in Greenland/Iceland and various mountain ranges but I believe Stiller and Dryburgh made it that way because we’re seeing the film through the eyes of a man who could never have imagined the sights he’s seeing.  Despite some egregious (even for a Hollywood studio standard) product placement, the film is a delight visually.

There’s also some poignant moments in Conrad’s script, whether it be Walter’s interaction with his matter of fact mother (a sweetly salty Shirley MacLaine) and Peter Pan-y sister (Kathryn Hahn, We’re The Millers) or his conversations with a rugged adventure photographer (Sean Penn) that may hold the key to his journey of discovery.  Wiig and Stiller’s romance is ever so slightly treacley (of course she’s a divorced single mom and of course there’s a scene where Stiller thinks she’s getting back together with her husband) but Wiig and Stiller are gifted enough to inject these moments with the right kind of gravitas that supersede any failings the script has to offer.

The movie is also genuinely funny, with Stiller’s interaction with a drunk helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) being the only moment I laughed until I cried in recent memory.  The PG rated film is absolutely family friendly but I’d encourage parents to not be deceived that very small children will like this as much as, say, a 10 year old would.  This is not a Night at the Museum style of family film…but one that parents can take kids to and have a nice discussion about family and future.

Like The Way Way Back, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a warm empathy emanating from its core that makes it a very worthy choice for the holiday season.  The film stopped and started for years while the right director and star were located and it’s nice to see that Stiller fit the bill for both roles.  There’s a lot of solid work on display here and I found Walter Mitty’s adventures to be right on par and possessing more meaning than anything that Iron Man could muster up.

Movie Review ~ The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Pj Byrne, Kenneth Choi

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: R

Running Length: 179 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:

Review:  After making a brief detour to PG-rated family friendly fare with 2011’s wondrous Hugo, director Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear) makes up for lost time with the ribald and very R rated The Wolf of Wall Street, a film arriving with much buzz due to the pedigree of the director, its starry cast, and its butt-numbing running length that will test the bladders of even the strongest leg crossers amongst us.

When asked by a few friends what my initial opinion of the film was, I responded with “it’s an entertaining 135 minute movie that unfortunately runs for 179 minutes” and that’s probably the most succinct review I can offer for Scorsese’s excessive and excessively long opus looking into the boom of Wall Street in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?  That would be Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic), an actor I usually have little patience for due to his penchant for playing variations on the same role.  With 2012’s Django Unchained, however, the actor showed some sinister dexterity that was appealing to watch and which should have netted him an Oscar nomination.  Though earlier in 2013 audiences and critics were divided on Baz Lurhman’s 3D take on The Great Gatsby, it was generally agreed that DiCaprio’s vulnerability in the leading role was one of its saving graces.

So it’s nice to see that DiCaprio once again shines as Jordan Belfort, an upstart stockbroker that easily is sucked into the dizzying world of money and all the trappings (booze, drugs, women, etc) that seemed to go with it.  The layers DiCaprio adds in addition to Terrence Winter’s hefty dialogue are admirable and more than a few times I found myself getting lost in the film thanks to the conviction and brio DiCaprio brings to the role.

Also making a good showing is Margot Robbie (About Time) as Belfort’s second wife that isn’t much of a pushover.  It’s nice to see a female character in a Scorcese film portrayed as more than just a wife or sex object (though Robbie is one of many, many, many actresses in the film that is seen fully nude) and there’s a dynamic chemistry between Robbie and DiCaprio that gives the film some extra oomph when needed.

In addition to DiCaprio and Robbie I also enjoyed some comically dry turns from Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), Rob Reiner (The Mystery of Belle Isle), and Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist)…actors that Scorsese uses to his advantage whenever the movie needs a boost of energy (which happens quite often in the bloated second and third acts).

I’m leaving Jonah Hill (This Is the End) for last because now we’re into the elements of the movie that didn’t work for me.  Hill’s puffy stockbroker colleague of DiCaprio is nearly governed by his costume choices (day-glo sweaters, loafers, large glasses), his impeccably white teeth that give him a beaver-esque quality, and a nasally New Yah-k whine that started to give me stroke symptoms as the move droned on.  The early word was that Hill was set for another Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (after 2011’s Moneyball) and if that’s the case then I’m clearly missing something because I found Hill to be drastically out of place, however believable his connection to DiCaprio’s character was.

Then there’s the length…good lord the film is overlong.  Even the casual moviegoer would have been able to edit at least 30-35 minutes off of this monster and I’d challenge anyone to sit through the film twice and not find the exact moments where Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker should have excised large passages of dialogue and story that had no bearing on what happens later in the film.  I don’t mind long movies…but they have to have a reason for being long and there’s absolutely no rationale for the movie to lumber on as long as it does.  And keep in mind the film was already edited down from an even longer cut…a task that moved the original release date from its original Thanksgiving release schedule.

Scorsese is truly one of the most legendary filmmakers out there and while The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a turkey, it’s not one of the director’s best thanks to a curious lack/slack of pace.  I’ve always found Scorsese’s films to be taut experiences, no matter the genre but I get the feeling Scorsese couldn’t come to a decision on what he was trying to reveal in the life story of Belfort so he simply left in most everything that he captured during filming.  Removing 30 minutes would have made Scorsese’s film truly howl and been an even better showcase for DiCaprio’s well thought out performance.  It also would have monumentally reduced Hill’s role which is what the film very much needed…a sacrificial lamb for this Wolf to be a winner.