Tuesday, 17 March 2015

100th Post: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This week I am reviewing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), a Ben Stiller film that sees him direct and play the title role.

Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox
So, Walter Mitty is your average guy with a caring family and a good job, working in the photography department of Life magazine. He is obviously a little shy and often zones out into wild fantasies where he is the hero defeating those who annoy him in real life, or impressing his new work colleague Cheryl, played by Kristen Wigg, who he has a crush on. However, his normal day begins to go awry when it's announced that Life is moving online, and he discovers the photo for the last issue's cover is missing. Desperate to find the photo in time, Walter decides the only thing he can do is track down the person who took it, the world-travelling photographer Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn - even if that means travelling to Greenland to find him. 

This film came out a couple of years ago and I remember the trailers and hype for it. At the time some critics weren't to impressed. Perhaps this is because, admittedly, the daydreaming sequences and the reality jar a bit - the day dreams are creative but more wacky compared to the gentle tone of reality. Or perhaps its because the film is basically a moving inspiration poster.

Beyond those criticisms though, I thought this film was wonderful. It is a beautiful film, filled with lovely landscapes that I doubt many people will have seen before - because lets be honest, how many times have you seen Iceland and Greenland in an American film? The characters seem real, and Walter Mitty is a shy, nice-guy protagonist we can all relate too. 

Now, normally I don't usually discuss serious issues beyond the media on this blog - but this is my hundredth blog post so, excuses! - but whilst I was watching this film I couldn't help but think that it might appeal, and resonant with, people with maladaptive daydreaming.  

If you haven't heard of maladaptive daydreaming or MD before, its basically where someone daydreams to an addictive extent, and it starts to disrupt their lives. People with MD can spend hours, even a whole days, just daydreaming and neglecting daily activities. The person daydreaming will often do something physically repetitive like pace or tap whilst daydreaming, while these sessions can be set off by a variety of triggers - like reading books, watching television shows and listening to music. 

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Walter Mitty has MD in the film, but I do think that those with MD might relate to it - especially when you consider that Walter daydreams even though he has a great job and a loving family. People often seem to think that daydreamers are running away from reality and must think life is dull or horrible, and that can be true, but daydreaming can also be just a coping mechanism for other things like anxiety or part of other conditions. 

In the case of Walter his habit of drifting off is probably down to his being shy and feeling more confident in his daydreams, or  - spoiler! - because he feels subconsciously unfulfilled after missing a chance to travel. Meanwhile in his imagination he can be the exciting, interesting traveller. Then when Walter tells a friend that he's not daydreaming so much after all his travels,  it seems like this has happened  because he's dealt with the root of why he zoned out in the first place - he no long feels like he has to imagine himself doing amazing things, because he has done some and gained confidence through that. At least that's what I like to think. 

In summary
An inspirational film, that is funny, poignant and makes you to get out and travel. A highly recommended watch, at the very least to see the incredible landscapes and some wild skateboarding!

Monday, 9 February 2015

Review: Honeymoon in Vegas

This week I am reviewing the 90's romantic comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), starring Nicholas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker. 

(C) Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema 

Honeymoon in Vegas is about Jack Singer, who on his mother's deathbed, promises never to marry. Years later he is working as a private eye following cheating couples, and has lovely girlfriend called Betsy. However, their relationship starts to get into trouble as Betsy grows tired of waiting for him to marry her - so Jack takes the plunge and go to Las Vegas to marry. 

Once in Vegas, a rich and influential gambler called Tommy Korman notices Betsy, and her uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. Determined to get her, he invites Jack to a poker game and ensures Jack ends up owing him a lot of money. He then offers to forget the debt if Jack lets him spend the weekend with Betsy. Unable to refuse, since they have don't have enough money, Betsy agrees to the deal. Tommy then sweeps Betsy off to Hawaii, making it clear that Jack will have to fight to win her back. 

I thought this film had some good raw material in it - two great locations, a wonderful cast and a few good ideas - but in the end, it amounted to a pretty tepid movie. 

The beginning is narrated over by Jack, explaining what he does and talking about his girlfriend, only for this narration to fall away completely just after everyone arrives in Vegas. I realise that this is perhaps a way of setting up the story, but the opening scenes where explanation enough. Why tell us his girlfriend works as teacher when in the scene its obvious that she's a teacher?

Also, from a writer's perspective, I couldn't see why their relationship was introduced at the happy stage only for the narrative to skip ahead to a year down the line, when it wasn't great - in basically the first few minutes. Why not just open with the couple having problems? We'd already jumped ahead four years after the pre-titles scene with his mother, now two minutes later, we're skipping again? 

This isn't the only time the film is badly paced. The poker game just takes too long. It feels like you're spending a good chunk of time watching it and though intriguing, if you like poker, the main focus should be the romance - Jack and Betsy's relationship and Tommy's wooing of Betsy. This is a rom-com film after all. 

There are other problems, but I feel I should mention some nice moments. I liked the use of sepia in the flashbacks to Tommy's wife, and the fact that Betsy and Jack argue about the deal first of all round a boxing ring during a fight, and then in front of kids at an arcade, which is amusing. Finally the ending with the sky diving Elvis' was a brilliant visual to finish on. Its just a shame that by the end I didn't really feel invested enough in the characters to care that they were together - I was actually more interested in how sparkly they looked in their outfits. 

In summary
Though I can see potential in the great cast, locations and some of the ideas behind the film, Honeymoon in Vegas just doesn't manage to use them effectively enough. It fumbles about and the end result, though rather wacky and occasionally amusing, didn't feel particularly romantic to me. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Review: Paddington

This week I am reviewing the live action screen debut of Paddington (2014), the beloved Peruvian bear from Michael Bond's books and several television series. 

Copyright: StudioCanal
First of all, I must say that I did not grow up reading the Paddington books. In fact I don't believe I have ever read one. The only memories I have of Paddington, other than the iconic teddy bear, are tiny snippets of the television series that originally ran in 70's and 80's. So, I don't know if the story and characters hold true to the original source. 

Nonetheless I did assume, as I so often foolishly do, that like so many remakes of beloved children's films, it wouldn't be very good and would stray wantonly from the source material. However, I kept hearing people say good things, and eventually went to see it yesterday.

The film follows the young bear after he is left homeless by an earthquake and sent off to London by his Aunt to start a new life there, whilst she retires to an old bears home. Once in London, Paddington meets the Brown family, lead by the extremely cautious Mr Brown, who decide to take him in temporarily. Meanwhile, a taxidermist has also heard about his arrival in the city, and plots to kidnap him, so she can stuff him. 

I thought the film was extremely charming. It makes wonderful use of visuals, using cutaways and interesting effects to help illustrate the story -  in a way that sometimes reminded me of Sherlock. For example, when Paddington is writing to his Aunt in the attic, we see the dolls house nearby open up to reveal the rooms of the actual house and the actions Paddington is describing. Whilst in another scene, when he is missing and the family are looking for him, a large tree painted on Brown's staircase wall has all its blossoms whisked off, to demonstrate the feelings of sadness, as well as the change of time and the seasons. Lots of little touches like this made the film feel and look thoughtful and delightful.

It was also enjoyable to see such an excellent British cast. Particular highlights included Peter Capaldi as Mr Curry, who after seeing him full of wild energy as Doctor Who seemed to age himself in this performance, with his dank hair and slimy movements. Whilst I was surprisingly delighted to spot Simon Farnaby, who is one of the actors from Yonderland and Horrible Histories. Of course I must not forget the stars of the film - I thought Ben Whishaw voiced Paddington beautifully, and that Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, who played Mr and Mrs Brown, were on top form as their respectively grumpy and chirpy best.  

Of course, I cannot finish this review without giving my opinion on the slight controversy that surrounded it during its release - that it given a PG rating. According to the filmmakers interviewed on Film 2014, they were quite surprised, having expected Paddington to be given a U. Whilst the classifiers argued they had done this on the basis of Nicole Kidman's scary villain. 

Well, in my honest opinion I can see the classifiers point. I thought the fact that Paddington was literally on the table unconscious whilst Kidman opened boxes of pointy instruments was quite dark. Though I'm not saying other children's characters haven't been threatened with being turned into fur coats or worse, the darker stuff is normally suggested and left off screen. And as far as I can tell the PG rating hasn't stopped Paddington from being a very popular film, with both adults and families, so I doubt it has done them much harm.

In summary
A terrifically charming film, full of lovely touches and a pleasing sense of English-ness to it, in its portrayal of rain soaked London. The main character is adorable and sympathetic, and the cast is excellent. A real treat for the whole family. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Review: The Theory of Everything

This week I am reviewing the Golden Globe and Oscar nominated film The Theory of Everything (2014) a biopic that follows the relationship between Jane and Stephen Hawking throughout their marriage.

Copyright: Working Title / Indiewire

The film begins in Cambridge, 1963, where a 20 year old Hawking first meets Jane at a house party. He is a jokey lad, doing cosmology and having trouble picking a final year subject. She is studying French, Spanish and poetry and believes in God. Despite this opposition of religion versus science, the couple hit it off, and after another chance meeting start dating. Hawking also gets an idea for his dissertation, inspired by a lecture on black holes. However, everything is suddenly thrown into disarray when Stephen discovers he has Motor Neurone disease (MND) - which affects the nerves connected to the muscles of his body - and is only given two years to live.  

When Jane finds out what he is facing, she encourages him to stay strong and decides to stay with him. Despite the limited life span he might have, and warnings from his father that she'll probably come second to Stephen's work, the pair get married and decide to settle down. Over the next few years they  have to cope with the emotional and physical  obstacles of Stephen's Motor Neurone disease. 

I think this film deals with its subject matter very well. It gives the audience a sensitive and even-handed look into the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking, showing us how two people dealt with an extraordinary situation and made the best of it. It seems to me to strike a good balance between showing how hard coping with MND can be, as someone with it, as their partner, as their carer, and yet it also highlights the precious moments of their life - their wedding, the births of the children, happy summers and celebrations of Hawking's achievements. In effect, though the cinematography may look gloriously nostalgic, the action and plot  feels like it stays close to reality - which it hopefully should, since the film is somewhat based on Jane Hawking's own memoir. 

That's the other thing I liked about the film - there were no bad guys. Even in biopics, certain characters might end up being thrown in a less then kind light, but here no one was judged. Every character seemed to be presented just as they are, not as caricatures.

A mention should also be made of Eddie Redmayne's performance as Hawking. I had heard that he been nominated for an award for this role before seeing the movie, I have to agree that his acting is incredible. His physical performance is so entirely believable, and feels so natural, that you never question it for a second - it never feels forced.  

Finally I must say that a reversed time sequence towards the end of the film and its end credits deserve a mention - as they were beautifully done. 

In summary
A well-shot, wonderfully acted, sensitive film about one of the greatest scientists of our time and the amazing woman who married him and faced Motor Neurone disease with him for many years. The Theory of Everything is a fascinating look at their lives that is well worth the watch.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Review: Yonderland (Season 1)... and a Happy New Year!

Well it's whole new year - 2015, the Back to the Future year! - and I'm back blogging. I have to apologise for the two month hiatus, though I am very flattered to see I've still had some views over the past few weeks anyway! Thank you for that! 

So, let's kick start the year and dive straight into a review. This week I am reviewing the television series Yonderland. 

Copyright: Sky
Yonderland is a strange fantasy-comedy series about regular housewife and mum of twins Debbie. When the kids start school, Debbie finds herself stuck at home watching mid-afternoon television or making tea, until she discovers an elf in her kitchen cupboard. He has come to tell her that she is actually the Chosen One, meant to save the magically Yonderland from evil forces. 

Originally airing on Sky, Yonderland is a home-grown British series, created by the cast of the educational, and entertaining, children's programme Horrible Histories  - and just like in that show, the actors taken on various roles. The series also uses a lot of puppetry, with several regular puppet characters on the show - Elf and Nick the Stick who act as Debbie's guides, being the main ones. 

Copyright: Sky
Despite the fantasy elements and puppetry though, I felt the show seemed to be aimed at a more adult audience. Though the humour is silly and odd, it seems to be appealing more to adult sensibilities - such as the villain Negatus trying to have deathtrap installed and going other health and safety and fees with a salesman, as well as occasional sexual references.

However, in many ways I think this is what makes it so enjoyable. It has a wonderful nostalgic feel of the fantasy programmes you used to watch as kids - with quests, magical portals and puppets - but instead of a child in the hero role, there's an adult saving the day. 

I certainly got a strong sense of familiarity from watching the show. It reminded me of a programme I used to watch as a child, Roger and the Rottentrolls. It had a big cast of puppet trolls and similar sense of ridiculous humour - just like Debbie discovers in Yonderland that she appears to be the only one with common sense, the young lad Roger finds that the Rottentrolls can be pretty dim and childish. 

In summary

Yonderland is an amusing, nostalgic and fun comedy, perfect for watching on wet afternoons when you just want to relax. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

5 Reasons Elementary is More Original than Sherlock

As you can guess, I haven't been blogging the last month or so, but I am back again, with an article I wrote for another place  - which ultimately never got used - but which I am quite proud of.

I love the series Sherlock,  with its fast-paced editing and visuals, its funny, clever scripts and Benedict Cumberbatch giving that wonderful, ever so English, electric performance. I am a fan, and when Elementary was first announced years ago, I must admit I shook my head and sighed mockingly. How could it compare to the beloved BBC's Sherlock? It was set in America for starters! Sherlock Holmes was British! It wouldn't take - it wouldn't be as good.

So, imagine my joyous surprise when I finally watched the series and discovered that, firstly Elementary was brilliant, and secondly, that it was more original than Sherlock. Yes, do not adjust your computer screens Sherlock fans, I honestly think it is!

I'm not saying one is better than the other, but rather Elementary did things differently. Whilst the BBC series is essentially the distilled spirit of the old stories shot straight into the 21st century, Elementary dared to take the characters in new directions, to adapt them to a more modern world and to try out new ideas. 

Warning though! SPOILERS ahead!

1] Watson is a Woman

Perhaps one of the biggest changes Elementary dared to make. Turning Watson from the traditionally male, slightly bumbling British sidekick, into a smart, sensible female Chinese-American surgeon. In retrospect the leap is quite dramatic, particularly when you consider that this is probably the first time there's ever been a female Watson on television, let alone one that isn't British!

It was also rather risky. By making Watson female the series so easily could've fallen into the 'will-they-won't-they' trap, much like Starbuck and Apollo in the new Battlestar Galactica. Yet the relationship between Joan and Sherlock is spot on, and is believably and obviously platonic - in fact there are more romantic sparks between Cumberbatch and Freeman's Holmes and Watson, if you believe the YouTube videos.

Played brilliantly by Lucy Liu, in the longer series format Joan Watson also seems to get more developed in Elementary with a tragic past of her own, as well as a life outside of Sherlock and the brownstone. Here we watch her come into her own as a character, developing and learning throughout the series.

2] The New Dynamic

In Elementary Watson and Holmes are brought together with more purpose than in Sherlock. In the latter series Holmes merely requires a room-mate at first to share the rent on Baker Street. Whilst in Elementary, Joan is a sober companion, hired to help Holmes readjust to living outside of rehab, creating a slightly new dynamic between the characters.

Now, instead of Watson just being dragged into Holmes' world basically through proximity, we find she actually has a reason to be at his side all the time. This also causes extra tension between them, because Watson now has a more powerful role. As Holmes' sober companion Joan has expectations and goals for him, to help him back into normal life. Meanwhile Holmes of course, is unwilling to participate, seeing very little purpose in AA meetings and sponsors. It also means that in the first series we are never fully certain if Joan and Sherlock will actually team up - Joan is only meant to spend a few weeks with Sherlock, so will she stay or go at the end of the series?

3] Holmes' Addiction

Holmes' habit of using drugs was only vaguely hinted at in Sherlock, but never discussed out loud or head on, despite the detective's tendency to use drugs being present in the original stories - though, remember back in Victorian England the drug laws weren't anyway near as restrictive as now.

Here however, the writers do not shy away from this, and instead take the opportunity to give Holmes a darker backstory, an extra layer to his character and a good reason to move him out of England - by having him fall into a full on heroin addiction. Admittedly when the series starts this has happened in the past, but of course the vigilance required to stay sober, the damage he has done to others and his continued recovery all keep the shadow of his addiction in the foreground - there is always a danger he relapses.

This not only adds more emotion and drama to the series, but it gives the series a more grown-up, modern feel. Elementary deals with the fact Holmes takes drugs, and not only brings it up to date, but tackles it in a more open, mature and realistic way than Sherlock does.

4] Holmes' is More Human

We've always know that Holmes is a detached, antisocial genius who's main interest lies more in the puzzle than the people - and that is true of Holmes in both series. Nonetheless, the Holmes in Elementary displays more emotion, more sympathy and warmth, than his counterpart in Sherlock. He is more considerate, more vulnerable and most importantly, he did truly fall in love Irene Adler.

In Sherlock, Holmes is obviously attracted to Irene, but it's more a meeting of wits and sexual tension - and at the end of the day he never admits to any feelings like love. Meanwhile in Elementary, Holmes does fall genuinely and completely in love with Irene, much to his own surprise - and freely admits it too. It is only when it ends badly that he decides never to let such an emotion distract him again, quite understandably.

Although this diverges slightly from the more traditional, almost emotionless Holmes, making the character more empathic and open does allow the show to explore avenues that colder versions of Holmes cannot - such as the isolation of being a genius, and the fear of destroying or burning oneself out.

5] Irene Adler is Moriarty

This was not only an incredible twist, but incredibly clever. Again whilst Sherlock stuck to a firmly male Moriarty who was just rather camp and on the crazy side, Elementary totally shook up any expectations we had, combining Holmes' only love interest with his arch-nemesis - giving a whole new meanings to their rivalry. In Elementary Moriarty toys with Holmes' emotions in a way Sherlock's villain never could - lets be honest, strapping John to a bomb is scary, but pretending to have been violently murdered and tipping your lover into a heroin addiction is just on a completely new plane of torture. In this series Moriarty, though somewhat accidentally, destroyed Holmes and his life in London from the inside out - you can see just in the way he reacts to finding Irene alive how much this has impacted him.

The other thing that makes this new direction such a stroke of genius, is that you've basically created a love-hate relationship between Holmes and Moriarty, but where the 'love' was at one point literal. The emotional mess the past causes for both characters means that future encounters are not only going to be a battle of wits, but a struggle of emotions. Holmes has more reason to want to stop Moriarty in this series than in any other. She is not only a criminal mastermind, casually killing people to aid her own vast schemes, but she screwed him over emotionally - a reason for a personal vendetta doesn't get much more personal.

So that's my opinion.... but what do you guys think? Write in the comments below!