Ben Stiller is unarguably one of the masters of modern comedy, and has tried his hand at all manner of mediums from sketch comedy, features, writing, directing and producing. ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ may be his most ambitious project to date, further adapting James Thurber’s short story of the same name. He directs and stars as the titular Walter Mitty who lives an ordinary life working in the photo archive department of general interest magazine, Life, but he has a incredibly active imagination, dreaming up extraordinary scenarios which take him away from his humdrum existence. When his work announces its crossover to digitisation, threatening the job security of both Walter and colleague crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) he finds himself with the task of arranging the final front cover image which is sent to him from photo journalist collaborator Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), but when the negative goes missing, he embarks on an adventurous path which challenges to surpass even his wildest dreams.
There is an unbalanced mix of styles on show as the narrative has the beginnings of an awkward office rom-com before switching focus and almost leaving the love interest behind completely. The character of Walter Mitty is likeable enough, despite being rather typical, reminding me very much of the standard Steve Carell part, yet I struggled to root for him on his quest. His journey became tiresome and a lot less interesting than the dreamt up scenes in the opening third which were well choreographed and entertaining. These sequences could have and should have continued throughout his story but were sadly discarded as Mitty’s real life became more eventful though eventful doesn’t necessarily mean enjoyable. There are moments which stand out amongst the emptiness, such as a David Bowie karaoke rendition and a playful Benjamin Button spoof, both again though are imagined, and the landscapes look excellent as his search for the missing negative takes him to the Nordic beauty of Iceland and Greenland.
Ben Stiller is accomplished in everything he does, but even the best can slip up from time to time and while the film falls a little flat, he still manages to pull off a decent acting performance, involved in every scene and always watchable. He is seen playing the rare straight role, following on from Greenberg, allowing his circumstances to bounce off of him rather than being the creator of mishap as he has been known for previously. This time around, unlike the aforementioned Greenberg, I don’t think a believable connection is formed with co-star Wiig and during scenes between the two, I myself took to daydreaming, imagining him alongside Greta Gerwig, or even better Cameron Diaz.
For a picture surrounding a hapless daydreamer, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ just isn’t dreamy enough but its a notable technical achievement for Stiller as a director, boasting wonderfully creative set pieces and stunning cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. The plot slowly became predictable and felt very padded out, given that it had stretched what was originally a much shorter story, and the casting choices are sadly uninspired. Ultimately, when it reached its conclusion, it was an experience that I wasn’t too bothered about waking up from.
Stemming from a hit YouTube series, ‘Svengali’ tells the story of music fanatic Dixie (Jonny Owen) as he moves from a small-town in South Wales with his girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure) to follow his dream of being a band manager in the big city. He finds the next big thing in the epically named volatile four piece The Premature Congratulations, or The Prems for short who he takes from grotty pub gigs to the listings in NME. Jonny Owen also writes and produces but it is John Hardwick who directs, his Meadows-esque shoestring budget style coming across to establish the lively London setting perfectly, elevated by a great British soundtrack.
When speaking about the tracks used, Owen talks about the origins of rock and roll and how he wanted each decade to be represented since it began and this works, showcasing the evolution straight through to the latest flavours of the month, Jake Bugg and Miles Kane. There is a clear passion and vision behind this piece, and with all the Fred Perry polo shirts, parkas and Doc Martens on show, the Mod scene is captured well. There is a hilarious moment where Dixie debates with a Camden record shop owner Don (Martin Freeman) over Mod culture.
The biggest laughs come from the many great, well placed cameos from Freeman, Michael Smiley and Matt Berry who plays an eccentric producer who sits behind his desk in loud beach shorts and flip flops. Aside from the rock raucous, at the heart of the film is the relationship between Dixie and Shell and the financial struggle they go through to fund their dream. This plays out nicely enough, but feels a little like it has been patched together to carry the narrative along, and doesn’t go deep enough. With Vicky McClure, the acting talent is definitely there to get beneath the cracks and go dark, as she has shown in her This Is England work, but sadly this doesn’t happen.
There is a lot to like about this fun flick, and for any fan of British pop culture, it a must see. Dixie is another downtrodden underdog, fighting against the odds, so it is easy to root for him, his infectious personality and naff sense of humour making him ever likeable. I feel it glamorises the lifestyle a little in the beginning, and when things take a turn for the worse for Dixie and Shell, it doesn’t ring true, losing its sense of reality. Even if the ride isn’t as interesting as it should be, the excellent music choices are certainly more than enough to see it through.
Middle-earth motion pictures are quickly becoming as synonymous with Christmas as mulled cider and bad cracker jokes, and last year was no different. Peter Jackson is back with the second instalment in his trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy adventure novel. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ picks up pretty much where Bilbo Baggin’s unexpected journey left off as he, along with Gandalf the Grey and a squad of merry dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, continue their trek to The Lonely Mountain to find the Arkenstone gem and reclaim the Kingdom of Erebor. On their travels, they encounter giant man-eating spiders, the Elves of Mirkwood, a horde of vicious orcs and of course, Smaug, the dragon. But now that Bilbo is in possession of the One Ring, he is an ever-changing hobbit and his character is severely tested, adding an extra dimension compared to the first film which was mainly an introduction exercise for the host of new characters.
The first instalment of the trilogy came under critical fire for its pacing issues and the lengthy pit stops used halting the proceedings to pad out the typically long running time associated with Peter Jackson’s works. This time around, there is a much more action packed start after and during the big set pieces, the high 48fps frame rate is handled more assuredly but it still unfortunately feels below average in terms of the 3D usage. Considering filmmakers such as Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron have made technical leaps forward in this field, the 3D effects here are unremarkable and distracting, failing to add an awful lot to the film.
In saying that, the visuals are mostly spectacular, particularly in one busy sequence when the dwarves are sent hurtling downstream whilst packed in wooden wine barrels as they flee from the elves in a wonderfully entertaining escapade. Talking of elves, we see Jackson employing some creative license when it comes to the pointy-eared clan, bringing Lord of the Ring’s favourite Legolas into the story despite the fact he wasn’t featured in the original book. Though more controversially he also initiates the feisty Tauriel, who has been plucked straight from his own imagination, and wedges in a cross-species love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and boisterous dwarf Kili, who is the only dwarf aside from the courageous Thorin to receive further character development in this edition. The others follow suit and make up the numbers though a small group are separated from the bunch near the end which may allow for something more interesting in the final piece. The romance aspect of the storytelling feels very unnecessary and forced, completely deflecting from the origins of Tolkien’s beloved tale and serving merely as filler.
The performances are strong across the board, lifting the entertainment value somewhat, and Martin Freeman excels in developing Bilbo’s arc, becoming braver with a brooding darkness as the almighty affect of the ring takes control. He is sadly underused given that he is in the titular role but his two-hander scene with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug the Magnificent is magnificent and provides a memorable showdown, Cumberbatch achieving more than you can imagine in supplying a vocal performance as the deadly antagonist. This follows on from the two-hander in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ with Gollum which was the best scene of that film as well, but with less humour and more sense of threat. Ian McKellen is suitably solid as usual, having had plenty of practice in engulfing himself in the role of Gandalf, but is also used sparingly as he meets with the Necromancer in a subplot which acts as an exciting tension builder for the third film in the series.
It is difficult to give honourable mentions to all faces of this chapter as there are so many but Bard the Bowman and the Master of Lake-town are most notably impressive additions as the plot develops, the former giving the human element that Aragorn supplied in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and I am thoroughly enjoying the way that Thorin, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage, is utilised. He is proving himself as a worthy leader of the hearty dwarves. In being the middle film of a colossal trilogy, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ manages to find its own identity, shrugging off the issues from the opener and assuming the vital function in bridging it with the anticipated finale which will be with us this Christmas. By then, Peter Jackson’s beard may be as grey as Gandalf’s which would be apt in delivering the last in his marathon collection.
Following on from recent successes Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Walt Disney Animation Studios bring us ‘Frozen’, the latest in an illustrious generation spanning collection. The company’s transition to digital is represented in an impressive short which is screened before the feature titled ‘Get a Horse!’ in which Mickey and Minnie Mouse do their utmost to outwit old foe Peg-Leg Pete. This quirky, imaginative little gem serves as the perfect entrée to what is to come.
The main course is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale The Snow Queen and follows two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) who have a fractured relationship due to a childhood incident caused by the cryokinetic powers of the latter. As they grow up to become the princess and Queen of Arendelle respectively, they grow further apart, but when Elsa’s icy powers are unleashed again on a larger scale, Anna embarks on a mission to help her older sister overcome her burden and save Arendelle from the threat of a never-ending winter.
Much of the opening hour is a rather drawn out preamble to the inevitable quest to reunite the estranged siblings and despite the entertaining musical numbers, the narrative fails to really get going until the supporting characters are brought in to save the day. The turning point occurs as Elsa belts out the catchiest of songs, Let It Go, and builds herself an ice-cold fortress as well as creating the lovable snowman Olaf, who is magnificently thought out and very funny in every scene. He humorously longs for a sweltering summer, blissfully unaware of the fact he would melt. He, along with traveller Kristoff and his trusty reindeer Sven form an alliance with the ever loyal Anna and plot to rescue Elsa from herself.
The journey leads to a conclusion with a refreshing twist, remixing the expected Disney formula but with an equally satisfying result. The voice performances are solid, the characters are developed well for the most part but what will stay with you is the infectious soundtrack and overriding joyous message, installing the importance of family togetherness. In a time when effective animations are becoming fewer and far between, ‘Frozen’ is a treat which I am sure will sit fittingly alongside the classics and offers two worthy additions to the adored princess franchise. For a film so visually cold and frosty, it has the warmest of hearts.