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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

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Synopsis: An office worker who lives inside fantasy worlds where he gets to live an adventurous life while romancing his co-worker sets off a global journey to fix things when both of their jobs are threatened

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: An entire movie could be made just about the decades long struggle it has been to get this remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film off the ground.  In 1994 the film was rumored to star Jim Carrey and over the years names like Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Mike Myers floated by as would-be Walters…not to mention names like Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), Ron Howard (Splash!), and Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) being singled out as potential directors.  After all was said and done it was just one name that finally took on both acting and directing duties: Ben Stiller.  Now, it’s easy to forget that Stiller started out doing much more darker comedic material than the family fluff he’s been involved with lately and after watching the trailer I’m inclined to think that the wait was worth it.  Stiller could bring just the right amount of balance to this reworked update and here’s hoping he makes good use out of the other actors cast.  A holiday film that hopes to be a hit, I can see this one doing well if everything falls into place like I think it could.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.