Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative asset manager at TIME Magazine who spends more time lost in his vivid daydreams than he does in real life. Once an outgoing, rebellious teen, Mitty longs to break out of his shell but struggles to find the right motivation to push him into gear. This motivation comes when he loses the negative that is to serve as the cover photo for the final issue of TIME. Desperate to track down this lost treasure, he gives in to his internal call to adventure and embarks on a crazy journey to find Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), the photographer who took the shot. His journey will take him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and back again but soon the focus of his travel shifts and Walter begins to truly rediscover himself.

I rarely feel the need to challenge the establishment, as it were, when it comes to the general critical consensus on a given movie. Art is subjective and while I often like or dislike a film more than the established critics, I don't feel the need to lead the charge of rebuttal. However, having seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, having taken note of the film's Rotten Tomatoes score (currently sitting at 48%), and having browsed through a number of negative reviews, I feel the need to lead said charge.

Most of the bad press I've read regarding Walter Mitty has boiled down to one of two responses: either the writer took issue with the film's expansion upon the original short story (written by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker in 1933) or the writer felt the film was reaching for heights, trying to connect to emotions, that it didn't get to. In regards to the first complaint, having recently read the original story, I feel good when I say it is excellent and also it absolutely would not translate to a full length feature in 2013. With this film, Stiller held true to the spirit of the book and expanded upon it in what I would say is a very fitting manner. And as far as the second complaint goes, I would much prefer a film have the ambition to reach for grander goals and fall short than to sleepwalk through a story without attempting to become anything bigger. I had no problem in the slightest connecting with Mitty and while it didn't end up as the iconic film it wants to be, it's still a stinking good film.

Simply put, I really, really liked Walter Mitty, to the point of outright love. It's a MittyPosterpredictable story but one that is told with great flair and an even greater passion that I found infectious. Ben Stiller truly cares about this film and I think that bleeds over into virtually every frame. Mitty takes the viewer all around the world and the visuals throughout are absolutely stunning. I'd say this movie is worth seeing just for the camera work and the outstanding overall look of it all. All of the actors are engaged in the story and while nothing here is deserving of award contention, I found all of the characters to be likable and the performances to be solid. Penn is perhaps most noteworthy in a tiny role that reminded me just how ridiculously good that guy can be when he's invested in the movie. Kristin Wiig could've been given more to work with but I think she played her role well and there's an awkward chemistry between her and Stiller that suits the film. Mitty is also seriously fun to watch and highly enjoyable and for me, that general likability covers over most of its flaws. Lastly, there's a timeliness to the film that embraces the love for things that are rapidly headed toward extinction. The chosen medium here is TIME Magazine and the magazine industry as a whole but it could just as easily be book stores, film, or just about anything else that we hold on to in the midst of the turning tides of technology.

Maybe it's just me and my affinity for nostalgia. I have long said that I will probably be the last person to ever shop in a brick and mortar book store or to buy a physical CD and that part of me certainly identifies with the romanticism of Walter Mitty. But even if my heart was completely frozen toward that aspect of the movie, I would think there would be more than enough herein to make me respond favorably to the whole thing. Mitty is a warm, feel-good, highly enjoyable movie that the cold-hearted critics are straight-up wrong about. Grade: A- (Rated PG for a little language)

Review Gangster Squad

There’s a famous line in Macbeth in which the titular character laments on a purposeless life by indicating that it is, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I am now open to the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t actually speaking about life in general but rather on the future meaninglessness of a little movie called Gangster Squad. In 1949 Los Angeles, Eastern mob Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has undertaken a brutal takeover of all organized crime on the West Coast. With a mind on stopping this epidemic at any cost, police sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) forms a group of like-minded cops who leave their badges at home in order to wage outright war against Cohen, a group that comes to be known as the Gangster Squad. Things are complicated, however, by Sergeant Jerry Wooters’ (Ryan Gosling) involvement with Grace Farraday (Emma Stone) who happens to be Cohen’s current squeeze. As the Gangster Squad puts more and more pressure on Cohen’s organization, the stakes get higher, leading to a final showdown that will put more than one body in the ground.

Gangster Squad has two big selling points. One is the gangster storyline itself. I, like any good American male, love gangster movies, partly because gangsters are (somewhat disturbingly) cool and partly because most gangster movies involve a cop or other hero who will stop at nothing to bring the villain down and I am a serious sucker for that character trope. Two, Gangster Squad brought together an impressive cast. If Penn, Brolin, Gosling, and Stone aren’t enough for you, quality supporters like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michael Pena round out the squad and a handful of other solid character actors make appearances from time to time. I think everyone involved did the best they could under the circumstances (see below) but Penn and Gosling stand out head and shoulder above the rest. Penn completely bought into his character and he does his dead level best to sell it the audience. And Gosling, who is rapidly becoming one of my Hollywood favorites, is charismatic and dynamic, at times the only truly memorable performer on the screen. It’s a fairly light weight character compared to the rest of Gosling’s resume but he does a lot with it and I would have enjoyed Gangster Squad far more if he was the focus of the film throughout.

It would be disingenuous to say that I disliked everything else about Gangster Squad. There are some good action shots, it’s a very pretty and stylish movie, and I can’t say it is a complete loss. But the missteps made in the process of producing Gangster Squad were large and severely debilitating. Given the success (and hilarity) of Zombieland, I believe that director Ruben Fleischer is capable of making a good film. Unfortunately his two follow up efforts (this one, along with 30 Minutes or Less) have shown him to be a man who may be in over his head. Gangster Squad is a checklist of filmmaking mistakes. It cannot decide whether it wants to be a comedy or an action drama and it often switches tone mid-scene. Some of the action sequences are cartoonish, some shaded through a noir-ish lens, some done in Matrix-style slow motion that seems completely out of place. It struggles mightily to maintain pacing and momentum and as such, very little tension or drama is carried over from scene to scene, leaving the whole seeming like disconnected parts that probably don’t together all that well in the first place. I was prepared for a lot of things with Gangster Squad but I was not prepared for the boredom that set in quite quickly or the lack of investment I felt toward most of the characters. The dialogue is a joke, except when it’s supposed to be a joke in which case it almost always falls completely flat. The whole movie is flush with clichés, resulting in a predictable narrative that just about anyone could have pegged from the start. And let’s not forget the brutal voiceover that sits over the opening and closing credits like a cloud of smog and serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

All of this makes Gangster Squad a grab bag of mistakes that not even Gosling, Penn, and the rest can work around. It looks great and all but it seems to me that Fleischer and the rest of his crew got too caught up in the way the film appears and the awesomeness of the cast and forgot to actually put together a worthwhile script that would highlight these assets. Above all else, Gangster Squad is a wasted opportunity that just made me want to go home and watch LA Confidential or The Untouchables.

Gangster Squad Director: Ruben Fleischer Cast: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone Rated: R (occasionally explosive and graphic violence, language, some innuendo) Recommended For: I’m leaning towards “nobody”