Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

In 1936 James Thurber published a short story in the New Yorker about a man whose life was so dull he took whatever opportunity he could to disappear into his own, much more thrilling, imagination where, be he a fighter pilot or surgeon, he was always the hero. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947, 110 mins) takes this premise and expands it greatly into a wider narrative.

Danny Kaye stepped into the shoes of Walter Mitty, presumably because his talent mix (acting, slapstick, and patter songs) lent themselves to a role that, come a daydream, could see Kaye do anything, be it dancing, falling over, or knocking out a tune. And this film, as a vehicle for Kaye, let’s him showcase these skills, although this occasionally bleeds into indulgence, the narrative peppered with light entertainment longueurs.

Walter Mitty is a downtrodden fellow. Dominated into adult life by his mother (Fay Bainter); stumbling headlong into an unsuitable marriage with Ann Rutherford‘s naive Gertrude Griswald (with Florence Bates as a dragon of a mother-in-law waiting in the wings); and in the employ of a man (Thurston Hall) who happily adopts Mitty’s ideas while bestowing none of the credit. With all this going on around him it’s no wonder he disappears into regular reveries, his active imagination no doubt fuelled by the pulp magazines he has, for ten years, proofread for a living.

While imaginary worlds are Mitty’s retreat from his henpecked existence it turns out to be the real world that offers him the incentive to be the hero of his dreams. A chance encounter with Rosalind Van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) leads him into a crime caper involving a black note pad and the men (among them, Boris Karloff) who will stop at nothing — even murder! — to retrieve this MacGuffin.

While it mostly works as a story in its own right it’s perhaps debatable whether it should have retained the title given how it departs from the conceit while simply appropriating the imagination element. Admittedly, a story spanning a few pages was never going to form a script in and of itself, however the expanded story could at least have remained true thematically. Instead, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty delivers a story about a man discovering, in the real world, the ability to overcome the dreamy nature that has both comforted him and held him back. It’s a big step from the original, where, regardless of the heroics explored he was, in the end, Walter Mitty, and no amount of dreaming would ever change this dull fact.

Themes aside, it does work as a story and the film happily plays for laughs. Repetition is key, with the same situation approached time and again, each instance developed further to enhance its comedy, such as meetings at the boss’s office. And when Mitty disappears into dreams he suffers the consequences of the world going on around him, be it others’ frustration at him for not following the conversation; or the juxtaposition of dreams and reality, such as when his riverboat gambler heroically scatters a deck of cards everywhere while, following this through into the real world, the result is anything but heroic.

In Thurber’s story the only way out of such a lack-lustre life was to turn and face an imaginary firing squad and hope for something better beyond. That is perhaps a reaction to the times, the story reflecting on the years of Depression that had preceded it. However, director Norman Z. McLean, is able to bring colour and joy to a post-Depression (and post-war) world, with Danny Kaye’s Walter Mitty given the chance to enjoy life. In the movie he has a favourite song — Stephen Foster‘s Beautiful Dreamer — which closes with a command to “awake unto me”. When Walter awakes once and for all things are looking up and the likelihood is that he’ll need never dream again to live an exciting life.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Filth (2013)

Filth (2013)

In a sarcastic reversal of Renton’s “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue in Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Filth (2013, 97 mins) begins with a Scottish hagiography from Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). The passion may be there in the voiceover but the images belie the conviction. And that’s how things go through the film, with all appearances being deceiving and nothing quite as it would seem.

As cops go, Bruce Robertson is as corrupt as they come. A thread of hedonism runs through his life as he drinks excessively, takes hard drugs, and, when not indulging his hyperactive sex drive with someone, indulging it alone. If that’s not bad enough for a lawman he’s also partial to a spot of blackmail and intimidation. He knows there’s a promotion to Detective Inspector in the offing and aims to get it, whatever the costs, even if that means playing his colleagues (Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Emun Elliott, and Gary Lewis) off against each other in what he refers to as “the Games”. What may help him get that promotion is solving the murder we see in the opening scene.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is also adapted from a novel by Irvine Welsh, however it spends its time away from Edinburgh’s junky class and embeds itself within the establishment. The police, Freemasons, courts, and businessmen take the limelight but there’s nothing rose-tinted about this tier of society. Certainly, with DS Robertson as our guide, there’s no respect afforded it either. This, after all, is a guy pestering the wife of Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), his only friend, with obscene phone calls (in the guise of Frank Sidebottom!) while simultaneously leading the case to uncover the culprit. Situations like this drive the narrative, with Robertson having his nefarious schemes going to plan while at the same time letting them spiral out of control.

Despite the gravity of scenes peppering Filth — underage sex, prostitution, drug usage, amongst many others — it’s all served up with a thick slice of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh at the casual disregard for everything voiced in McAvoy’s narration. In fact, as roles go, it can clearly be seen that McAvoy relishes the possibilities of DS Robertson’s sheer breadth of character. One minute he’s sneaking out a casual fart, the next he’s all Bad Lieutenant. If he’s not being nice to the boss (John Sessions), he’s furiously masturbating in a cubicle. A role that offers variety to an actor is a gift and McAvoy practically oozes enjoyment here. Making a psychotic, sex-addicted, drug-using, hallucinating alcoholic a likeable character is no mean feat but somehow McAvoy achieves it.

What is perhaps less successful is the occasional trip into DS Robertson’s psyche, personified by Jim Broadbent‘s bizarre psychiatrist with elongated forehead and exaggerated Australian accent. While Broadbent plays it comical, and isn’t to be faulted, these sections don’t quite have the payoff one would hope. What they are is an an attempt to portray an element of the original novel (substituting a tapeworm with a cartoonish psychiatrist) that deserves a high score for effort but something more middling for the result. Someone, somewhere, must have deemed it relevant rather than finding a more innovative way to portray this. A tapeworm does appear in the film, spinning around in the ever-muddled Robertson’s head but, in the film’s context, it’s apropos of nothing.

While the aforementioned cast — joined by the likes of Shirley HendersonKate Dickie, and, in one weird scene, David Soul — perform well, the movie is dominated by McAvoy shouting, laughing, snorting, and sneering his way from scene to scene. With a murder to solve and a promotion to gain, he ploughs on as his world disintegrates around him. All his vices have becomes the filth that covers the truth he would rather not face. The truth about who, under all the bluff and bluster, DS Bruce Robertson really is. And even this, as sad as it is, doesn’t escape the bleak humour that undercuts everything.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

The humble shipping container is arguably the most important invention of the 20th Century. Without it the world would be far less connected and international trade would be slower and less valuable than it is today. The container is therefore a facilitator for globalisation and a modern success story. However, while globalisation can be good — in widening trade,  breaking cultural barriers, and making the world connected — it is not without its externalities. And the conflict in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips (2013, 134 mins) sees both sides of the globalisation argument come face to face where else but on a container ship.

The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged feeder vessel routinely sailing between Oman and Kenya, made the news in 2009 when it was hijacked off the Somalian coast. While it’s well known that piracy is rife in the region this particular hijacking was notable for the size of the ship targeted. Her captain at the time was Richard Phillips and it’s his account of the incident, as told in his 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, that sees Tom Hanks step into his shoes.

Despite its maritime setting, the film sets two stories in motion. The first is the eponymous captain’s as he gets his briefing and packs his bags for the trip ahead. En route to the airport he references the current global downturn noting to his wife (Catherine Keener) that, back in his day you could walk into a job and work your way up the ladder. Not so now, with myriad applicants chasing every job, and, on the other side of the world, we see this first hand, as Somalian gang leaders demand a ship be captured. Those willing outweigh the eventual pirates.

When both parties finally meet we get a drawn out stalemate between crew and pirates, although the latter always have something of an upper hand…and guns. Chief among them is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny wretch who, perhaps because of his scrawniness, has something more to prove and therefore doesn’t need to think twice about violence to make himself understood. The performance is both engrossing and extremely intense; a real achievement for a first time actor. The much trailered moment when he commands Captain Phillips to “look at me” a perfect encapsulation of the portrayal overall. Also debuts, the remaining pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) show themselves as more than capable too, both in capturing the ship and in the infighting that follows.

Hanks, as Captain Phillips, is superb in so much that it’s easy to forget that the man on screen is a character being acted. His performance feels natural, embodying as he does a man who is calm under pressure at all times. How heroic one takes him in the context of a true story is a personal choice —  while the movie is based on Phillips’s account, it’s something that others involved have questioned — it works within the film because it needs to be a single hero facing off against the pirates rather than a concerted crew effort. The latter is simply not Hollywood. While support does come via the US Navy, the focus is all on the captain. Come the final few minutes, Hanks dials up his acting a further few notches, all that stoicism converted into something deeply raw, emotional, and affecting.

What really brings the movie together is the style in which it is delivered. Greengrass’s camera is restless, swinging this way and that as it hunts the action. It’s like being inside a documentary as it happens, such is its immediacy. Thankfully, away from the claustrophobic closeness to the action, he also gives us moments of air in which we can see the larger picture, of ships at sea. But even here, with a container ship’s relatively slow manoeuvring speed, we get a sense of high octane action. Days become nights and become days again, hinting at a longer duration for the story, but with no mention of days passing, time becomes compressed to ensure we remain on the edge of our seats.

Despite the veracity of his account, Captain Richard Phillips will certainly heed the old captain’s duty that he will go down with his ship. In history, at least. But it’s not who did what that should lead the debate around Captain Phillips. Instead the effects of globalisation as discussed in the movie are where the real debate should lie. Is the west, in all its capitalist glory, responsible for the poverty elsewhere that drives people to become criminals against their nature? If so, what can be done about it? While there’s no answers, the questions are posed. All a movie like this can do is educate others on how the comfortable western lifestyle as typified by Captain Phillips is not without its victims who will bite back.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Taking a popular band and making a musical of their most popular songs appears to be a trend now. It’s worked for Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, their popularity on stage now surpassing ten years. However, the less said about the seven month run of Viva Forever! the better. Brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as The Proclaimers, may not have enjoyed the international fame that ABBA, Queen or even the Spice Girls had, but their back catalogue contains songs that have ingrained themselves in the Scottish consciousness and, more crucially, is large enough to allow the creation of a jukebox musical. In Sunshine On Leith (2013, 90 mins) Stephen Greenhorn adapted his original 2007 stage musical for the screen and the result, under Dexter Fletcher‘s direction, is a jubilant celebration of a movie with just enough underlying drama to lift it above typical musical fare.

Three relationships are at the heart of the movie, capturing the challenges of love at varying stages (hooking up, potential engagement, and silver anniversary) portrayed within a single family. Hooking up are Davy (George MacKay) and Yvonne (Antonia Thomas); he recently discharged from the army and she working at the hospital. Also fresh out the military is Ally (Kevin Guthrie) who has been dating Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) and is considering the next steps. Then there’s Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), the siblings’ parents, their twenty-five year marriage testament to the duration of love but not without their own problems.

Despite an opening fraught with nervous uncertainty as Davy, Ally, and their crew are transported across a war zone, the happiness soon starts to infect the movie as, back in Edinburgh, we see the friends walking along the street singing their way through I’m On My Way. It’s not so much the camaraderie of these two friends or that musical thing where people spontaneously burst into song, but the reactions of the others caught on camera. A man on his phone stares at them as if they are mad. Women walking their way smile; men passing look back bemused. Only the Proclaimers themselves, in a cameo, seem not to notice. What this opening does is let us know this is a world where breaking into song is something natural.

And so it continues, moments of drama segueing into song. Jane Horrocks already has a track record apropos singing (cf Little Voice (1998)) and with the rest of the cast providing capable delivery of their vocals the songs are well-served in this regard, although they do miss the somewhat comic emphasis that the Proclaimers bring to the songs in their originals. It’s worth mentionning that Peter Mullan’s gravel tones offer up something of a surprise as he tackles Oh Jean while  a crowd dances around him.

One of the problems with such films, as opposed to a musical with original songs, is that the storyline is partly dictated by the lyrics. Letter To America, a song about the Scottish diaspora, seems an obvious candidate for driving elements of the narrative and that is indeed how it’s used. But it’s the way the lyrics are portioned off to the characters that bring a new level of meaning so as to justify the song’s inclusion in the story. There are literal interpretations juxtaposed with others more figurative, and this is true for all those songs delivered by more than one cast member. To this end it’s a pleasure to see songs used in a meaningful context and not just there as a karaoke checklist. Plus, there are moments of subverted expectations (Let’s Get Married, for example) where the songs are used in a new context.

While it’s not the sort of movie that’s going to change the world Sunshine On Leith is at least going to light it up. It would be a cold heart that sits through it unsmiling and arms crossed as there’s enough toe-tapping goodness in the songs as well as decent enough coverage of relationships’ ups, downs, and ups again. As the final shot leaves Edinburgh behind (mirroring the opening journey in) we see the movie for what it is — a slice of life, entertaining and uplifting.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Romance on screen usually ends with two mismatched people discovering how made for each other they truly are. They’ll meet, hate each other from the get-go, but their paths are destined to overlap across various set pieces until the inevitable romance blossoms. The central relationship in Drinking Buddies (2013, 90 mins) flies in the face of convention and introduces us to two friends — one male, one female — who are attracted to each other from the start although see themselves as just being friends.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work in a Chicago microbrewery. Their working day — apart from work — consists of joking, chatting, and drinking beer. When the working day is over the brewers head on a busman’s holiday to the pub where they play pool and down beers. The chat and jokes go on and it seems obvious, as Kate and Luke gravitate to each other, that the stars have their future all sewn up.

The problem is that both are in separate relationships. It’s early days for Kate and Chris (Ron Livingston), who seem slightly mismatched, his serious nature uncomfortable against her free spirit. Luke and Jill (Anna Kendrick) also appear wrong for each other as their wedding plans are in the process of becoming more concrete. During one weekend they stay at a beach house where these different personalities align themselves. Platonically, of course. But it sets in motion the impetus that buzzes along in the background of this film.

There’s little cinematic about Drinking Buddies. No big explosions. No thrilling twists. Instead it feels an intimate invitation into its characters’ world where we observe their minutiae. It’s a realistic take on relationships, the conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners delving into their thoughts and worries. Throw alcohol into the mix — and barely a chat goes by without a beer in hand —  and we get a loosening of tongues that allow the conversations to go beyond where they would sober. The beer may bring crazy impulses or thoughts to the forefront of minds, but the characters are never too drunk to overstep boundaries. The silences that pepper conversations as they hold back are both reflective,  real, and weighed down with truth.

Perhaps much of the real feel comes from its lack of script. While director Joe Swanberg knew where he was going with his story (scenes, development, etc) the dialogue was left to the actors to improvise. Wilde and Johnson have an obvious chemistry as they improvise and it helps with warming to their characters. Best of all is how we gradually see the disintegration of our expectations. While we expect Kate and Luke to shake off their complications and come together what we are instead given is more information that helps us see how unsuited they actually are (Luke’s life is structured while Kate seizes the day) even if they don’t see it themselves.

While Drinking Buddies may be boring to some, it has enough happening in its story to hold interest. Although billed as a romantic comedy it plays as nothing of the sort, instead coming across as a slice of life (well, lives) at crossroads and the decisions that need to be taken, be they grasped by the characters themselves or forced by circumstance. Its focus on relationships forces us to consider whether men and woman can truly just be friends without the sexual attraction that inevitably bubbles under. That line is definitely blurred but there’s an ironic twist in that, through alcohol, things come to seem much clearer.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,