James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was first published in 1939. Its staying power is linked to its immediate success, in that Thurber adroitly, and with admirable alacrity, takes a dip into the mind of a man who isn’t necessarily a dreamer or a fabulist, but an ordinary guy who, like most people, feels that he falls short in innumerable ways and closes the gap as best he can: In his fantasy life.
The story was first adapted for the screen in 1947, with Danny Kaye in the title role; the resulting film is considered less than a masterpiece. Ben Stiller’s bite at Mitty’s fantastical apple will likely garner a similar reception.
Stiller both directs and plays the title part. In his film, written by “Happyness” scribe Steve Conrad, Mitty is a “negative acquisitions manager” for Life Magazine. This sounds like some sort of sinister financial services occupation, but it involves something far more innocuous: The receipt, care, and archiving of the magazine’s vast photographic stores. Just as the magazine is transitioning from print to online —— and kicking many of its workers out of their positions —— Mitty receives a roll of film from a famed photographer named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). O’Connell and Mitty have grown close over the years, with Mitty being a rare trusted ally in the publishing world; together with the negative roll, an appreciative O’Connell encloses a personal gift, and a note thanking Mitty and asking that the best shot on the role, exposure #25, be given consideration for the magazine’s cover. The timing being what it is, and O’Connell being a renowned photographer, the image is destined to make history as the cover photo for Life’s final physical edition. The only problem is that exposure #25 is nowhere to be found.
This turn of events opens up unlimited possibilities, both for what the missing photo might look like and where it might have gotten to. The film investigates the latter while only mildly teasing us with the former; in the process, it turns Mitty out of his musings and throws him into the world at large, hot on the trail of the itinerant photographer, where he is compelled to live out a series of adventures that are just as outrageous as any of the movie-inspired scenarios that constantly run through his head.
It’s a remarkable development, and not altogether appropriate. As a character, Mitty starts off pretty much what he should be: A nebbish whose habit of zoning out makes him the target of mocking, bearded alpha males. He’s the shy kid who never grew up, still being bullied by the thugs of the world. As such, Mitty is painfully unsure of himself, except in the niche of his highly specialized work, and —— naturally —— he’s romantically frustrated; he can’t even get eHarmony to work right for him, and this sparks a running gag as Mitty and an eHarmony support worker named Todd (Patton Oswalt) engage in a series of phone exchanges that take place at improbable moments and, one fears, are sure to run up Mitty’s phone bill, as he chats with his new friend from all sorts of far-flung, international destinations. (Then again, perhaps roaming charges are not such a cruel reality in the fantasy world of this film, where the nebbish and the pretty girl actually have a chance of connecting and all the slight, wimpy dude needs to take on some manly swagger is to scrap with sharks and venture where even Himalayan sherpas fear to tread.) But it’s precisely in this conceit that the film fails, soon coming to feel like an adaptation of a sheaf of travel brochures instead of a film based on Thurber’s short story.
In other words, the movie departs from the notion behind the classic source material the moment it stops being about heroic fantasies and becomes a road trip involving Herculean feats of courage and endurance. From time to time, as Mitty leaps into (and out of) helicopters piloted by drunks, faces down exploding volcanoes and Afghani warlords, and skateboards his way across scenic Icelandic terrain, one might wonder whether what we’re being shown isn’t, in fact, some sort of extended fantasy sequence. But, no: When Mitty’s dream life intrudes on his waking hours, as it does less and less often, it’s to present him with even more surreal images: Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the lovely co-worker on whim he has a crush serenading him with a rendition of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” is one such occasion. (Cheryl insists that the song is an ode to courage; and here I thought it was about a drug addict.) Eventually, the film tips its hand to show us what it really is underneath its Mitty carapace: A simple wish fulfillment, rather than an epic daydream. Mitty finally gets what he really wants when he’s given a token of appreciation and acknowledgement for all his years of meticulous work.
The surprises the “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” offers up have little to do with the plot (the fellow next to me kept predicting, in a mutter, what was going to happen and, one by one, his prognostications came true) and more with the casting. Oswalt’s sudden physical appearance jolts the screen with a shot of bracing energy; Shirley MacLaine shows up as his mother; Adam Scott plays the corporate bully-in-chief with mean-spirited gusto. Otherwise, this is a tepid adaptation that waters down and takes too many liberties with the short story that inspired it. After all, one supposes that if “Walter Mitty” had been meant (or were suitable for) long-form narrative, Thurber would have written it as a novel. Like Brad Pitt’s 2008 fantasia “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” before it —— also based on a short story, in “Button’s” case authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922 —— “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” feels like a sprawling, stylistically uneven mansion constructed around a small, tidy house. (In what seems a self-mocking moment, Stiller’s Mitty indulges, at one point, in a “Benjamin Button” inspired daydream.) But all that extra room doesn’t necessarily translate into space for the imagination to take flight. Instead, this movie trudges along —— amiable, lovingly photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, and utterly forgettable.
When a group of Navy SEALS set out in 2005 to track down and kill a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shahd, their mission went badly awry. It’s no spoiler to note, as does the title, that only of the soldiers made it back. But what happened, and why, makes for a viscerally, and visually, gripping movie that salutes the members of our armed forces.
Director Peter Berg adapts Marcus Luttrell’s first-person account of the mission in a way that fetishizes military men and glamorizes the physical extremes of their work. The film begins with footage of grueling SEAL training, a hellacious wringer from which participants drop out like flies. (N the words of one drill sergeant, they “choose to fail.” Those who make it through are, presumably, the toughest, fiercest, and most determined.
Among those who got through the training was Luttrell, played here by Mark Wahlberg. Deployed to Afghanistan, Luttrell and his fellow SEALs seem like the ultimate in American fighting prowess, but they also possess hearts and souls; in deftly managed introductory scenes, Luttrell and his buddies (played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) tend to long-distance relationships and future plans for families, tease one another about their love lives and domestic affairs, haze a young newcomer, and contemplate their latest assignment —— the killing of Shahd —— with steely, efficient calculation as their commanding officer (played by Eric Bana) takes them through the mission plan.
That excruciating training comes in handy when the their four-man team, alone in the Afghanistan countryside and faced with a compromised mission, has to fight what seems like a horde of Taliban fighters while seeking open ground where their comm equipment will function properly and allow them to call in air support. As one bad-luck twist follows the next, the men become more and more physically battered; they take down dozens of pursuing Taliban, but the steady rain of bullets and RPGs take their toll. Finally —— in a turn of events that almost seems tailored for Hollywood —— “good” Afghanis appear to offer assistance. That’s when the bad guys show just how single-mindedly evil and wantonly destructive they really are, launching an all-out assault against their own more kindly brothers.
And brotherhood is the very crux of this movie. Repeatedly, the American soldiers demonstrate deep bonds of loyalty, disagreeing on tactics but remaining unified in action to the point of making ultimate sacrifices for one another. (The Taliban baddies, by contrast, are depicted as little more than homicidal maniacs who wear — and this is a 1960s touch of silver screen evil —— eyeliner.)
Whether this film will take spark and enter the canon of great war films remains to be seen. When faced with an impossible ethical dilemma, the soldiers depicted here stick to the high road, knowing it’s going to cost them; this film celebrates their courage and professionalism. In some ways, however, the film is propagandistic and fawning; moreover, does the cinematic documentation of modern warfare really need to include clips from home movies (weddings, soldiers frolicking with dogs)? We know these are good ol’ boys, but isn’t the point of the war movie to show us tough-as-nails fighting men? On this latter score, “Lone Survivor” racks up plenty of points along with its body count; these SEALS are the sorts of guys who can hits to limbs and even improbable head-shots and still remain focused on the task at hand in the nose and confusion of a heated firefight. This is one of the most relentlessly bloody films (outside of the horror genre) in recent memory, and it only becomes more fraught and intense when the strain starts to show psychologically —— as a wild-eyed Wahlberg, surrounded by villagers who might or might not be allies, waves a hand grenade; or, later, overcome with relief and gratitude, tells his new-found friends goodbye.
The villagers who stepped up to help out despite the risk of bringing down the sociopathic wrath of the Taliban were, end-credits text informs the viewer, following an ancient code of honor. In doing so they, too, show a side of profound brotherhood, one the movie is wise to acknowledge: The brotherhood of humanity, binding beyond arms, munitions, rage, or even culture and language. It’s what allows the spirit of hope to endure even when assailed by dark forces of tyranny and bloodlust.
Patrick Moote is a comedian, which probably explains why, when his then-girlfriend said no to his marriage proposal at a sporting event (and on a Jumbotron, for all to see), he was able to tackle two very different tasks at the same time: Wallow in his hurt and misery (comedy is borne of tragedy, after all, or so they say) and make a documentary… sorry, a “cockumentary”… about the aftermath. Yes, a “cockumentary.” You see, the ex declined to marry him, in part, because he was inadequately hung for her liking.
Rattled and insecure, Moote did what anyone of his generation would do: Got all confessional, and did so with a video camera trained on him. (Brian Spitz, the auteur behind “Bang Blow & Stroke” and “Tales from the Crapper,” took on directorial duties.) In the course of the resulting film, “UnHung Hero,” out now on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, Moote travels to several countries and chats with an array of specialists and quacks; he also talks about the very public rejection (which blew up on YouTube and made headlines around the world) and his feelings of inadequacy with his brother, his parents, his old friends, and… mistake!… a number of former girlfriends. Some exes give him the skinny on his member with blunt honesty (one woman ranks him a 3 out of 10; “Come on!” Moote protests), and some are just baffled at being asked to asses Moote’s manhood.
Who can blame them? It’s got to be a hard task to explain that you want to make a film about your emotional emasculation that also addresses the physiological, evolutionary, and cultural tropes that feed into the notion that masculinity and virility somehow have a direct link to penis size. Moote gets chased out of a sex shop and a Korean bath house for daring to intrude on their sacred precincts with a camera. No one wants to listen to his attempts at explanation.
But our man persists, and explores not only the roots of his anxieties but also the medical question of whether there’s anything to be done about it, be the remedy surgical, herbal, pharmaceutical, or whatever. (He even tries lifting weights with his genitals at one point.)
The movie was a favorite at film fests, and you can see why; if there’s any male universal, it’s a fascination with, and an abiding love for, our junk. But the film also feels contrived in various ways. That pretty blonde he met at the sex shop? It gives the film a nice symmetry and the promise of a happy ending (if you’ll pardon the pun) for a girl he meets on the road to sexual enlightenment to be suitable dating material. And the way Moote veers from destination to destination and loops back again, first hopefully buying into and then rejecting a series of procedures that promise to add inches to his… er… stature, and then rejecting those remedies, feels put on. (Only when faced with a long needle full of some sinister concoction does he quail at the jab-to-the-johnson approach for penile enlargement? Really? Only when he sits in on a plastic surgery the promises to add girth to his gear, and ends up rushing out of the room to vomit, does he decide scalpels and scobs don’t mix? Are you kidding? We get that he’s piqued, but is he that desperate? Indeed, has this whoel thing made him nuts?)
Even though this material feels a little inauthentic, it’s often funny. The moment when his mother insists to a dejected Moote that he not abandon the documentary because it’s triggered personal development is priceless: “Keep growing,” she counsels, and even Moote’s glum mug seems to veil a laddish smile. Moreover, the film is downright educational, and as a compendium of the various snake-oil cures for guys who agonize over their endowment, it’s like a catalogue of con-artistry. “UnHung Hero” has a familiar destination (love and be loved for who you are, not what you have —— even in the joe boxer department), but the journey, though it veers into the absurd at times, is worth taking.
The Coen Brothers are back with their signature bleak humor, the world’s odd angles and infelicities once more aligning to take the starch out of some poor schlub.
This time, rather than a Los Angeles slacker or a hapless professor of mathematics, the Coens set their sights on a singer. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, looking suitably moth-eaten and hang-dog) is the surviving half of a musical duo that had a glimmer of success with their one album. Now, in the wake of his partner’s suicide —— abandoned, rudderless, with few prospects —— Davis drifts around New York City, sleeping on couches and picking up session work. The time is the early- to mid-1960s; America is transitioning into some new mental and social place, but Davis, befuddled creature that he is, has little idea of where or how he should fit into an emerging new culture. He disdains folk music, but finds that he has to play it to get by; he insults his friends and gets pummeled in back alleys by enemies he didn’t know he had; he inadvertently becomes the caretaker for one cat or another, but even in this humble endeavor he fails (or, in one instance, simply gives up).
As is de rigeur for the Coen oeuvre, commonplace episodes are taken over and transformed by strange details, as though people and objects belonging to distorted parallel universes had teleported over here by accident. Carey Mulligan, who makes an appearance as the sharp, angry girlfriend of a buddy (Justin Timberlake), complicates Davis’ couch surfing. A chance encounter with another session musician played by “Girls” co-star Adam Driver leads to a road trip to Chicago in the company of a gnomic, pathetic, and slightly menacing fellow named Roland Turner (John Goodman); it’s with giddy Beats-bashing that the Coens put Garrett Hedlund, as a young tough reminiscent of Dean Moriarty (or James Dean), behind the car’s steering wheel. (Just think of all those recent movies that have tried to capture the essence of Kerouac and his crew; the Coens, perhaps more wisely, succeed brilliantly in parodying the whole Beat mythos.)
In “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” the Coens famously shone a light on a species of American mountain / bluegrass / folk music; here, they celebrate folk music once more by way of the blues, with Davis performing a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The Coens, ever mischievous, balance this out with a novelty song about space travel that riffs on Larry Verne’s angsty / comic “Mr. Custer.” This oddball jam provides a little more for Timberlake to do, and also reminds us of the era in which we find ourselves here: The space race is beginning, and major social upheaval is already underway.
But the psychedelic love fest is going on somewhere else; we see little in the way of the era’s tropes, because the focus is Davis’ own upheaval —— and the stardom he covets, with only a vague idea of why, is as distant and unreachable as the stars themselves. This is a semi-serious man who will never learn to laugh, nor think deeply; as a club owner (F. Murray Abraham) who hears him sing puts it, “I don’t see the money,” another way of declaring Davis to be shy of talent. The best Davis can do, like so many of the rest of us, is pick himself up after his latest failure, dust himself off as best he can, and trudge onward. (Or sail; when his guitar doesn’t provide a living for him, Davis periodically retreats to the merchant marine.) Others may sing about life as a series of stillborn dreams and roadblocked strivings; Davis, however, is doomed to live it.
Upon hearing that Thomas Harris’ indelible character Hannibal Lecter would be getting his own series on NBC, I felt a frisson of dread. Lecter started off as a secondary character in Harris’ novel “Red Dragon” (filmed as “Manhunter” by Michael Mann in 1986, before being re-made under the original book title). In that book, Lecter was the dark mirror-image of FBI agent Will Graham; the two shared similar abilities (eidetic memory, good taste in wine, high intelligence). But Lecter had something more: A stripe of monstrosity that exceeded any rationale or excuse, or even human nature in its fundamental depravity. It was no wonder that reader, and Harris, responded to the witty psychotherapist who had little compunction about cutting his, and his clients’, losses when therapy was proving futile, and doing it with a very sharp, expertly wielded blade.
"Hannibal the Cannibal” was a serial of a new kind: A gustatory villain with a love of luxury and literature, not to mention advanced cooking skills; a predator who enjoyed his victims as victuals. Like Mack the Knife, there was never a trace of red about Lecter; in his native garb, he was clade in well tailored suits made from fine material, and his emotional temperature defined the term “blue blood” —— Lecter was forever as cool and put together as his wardrobe, even when he was indulging in the occasional opportunity for some fast food. (In one episode, he devoured part of a nurse’s face, raw, in a furious attack… while his vital signs, being monitored at the time, fluctuated not at all.)
Frustratingly, enragingly, as the character gained prominence with each successive book, the quality of the works declined; at the same time, Harris made two mistakes in presenting a fuller picture of his most famous creation. He gave Hannibal a back story to explain his sociopathy and his taste for human flesh; he also gave Hannibal more and more gifts and talents, which started to seem like super-powers rather than habits of refinement, with the predictable reduction of Hannibal’s portrait from something akin of Renaissance master to four-color comic book.
The peak of Harris’ Hannibal books was “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which Lecter was a counterweight for novice FBI agent Clarice Starling. Things went South in a big way n the next volume, “Hannibal,” in which the ice-blooded gourmand, having escaped FBI custody, fetched up in Italy. Here, his tide had begun to ebb; when Harris published the prequel novel “Hannibal Rising,” in late 2006, the character had lapsed into campy bathos, and the jig was up.
The films followed a similar trajectory. “Manhunter” (and Brian Cox as Lecter) gave way to Jonathan Demme’s 1990 film version of “The Silence of the Lambs” (in which Anthony Hopkins achieved cinematic immorality as Lecter). The David Mamet-scripted “Hannibal” followed the novel beat by beat until it didn’t, departing from the original ending in which Starling and Lecter became co-habiting cannibals and lived happily ever after. The film version of “Hannibal Rising” cast a new, much younger actor in the role out of necessity, but didn’t feel revitalized so much as creatively corrupted. The fascinating paradox of a true gentleman in the old-world sense of the word —— aristocratic, intelligent, well-rounded, cultured, and cosmopolitan —— who is also a serial-killing connoisseur of human flesh (and avid hunter of the vulgar masses he regards as the “free-range rude”) had lost its delicate balance and plunged into caricature.
So what would the latest incarnation of Hannibal Lecter be like? And how could Bryan Fuller, a producer one associates with quirky fare like “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies,” pull off anything remotely deserving of the novels’ early promise?
To his credit, Fuller has done marvelously at it, at least so far. “Hannibal” starts before “Red Dragon,” recasting the characters to an extent but carefully preserving the narrative symmetry that keeps them in careful opposition. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is more a descendant of “Monk” and the new takes on Sherlock Holmes (from the BBC’s “Sherlock” and NBC’s “Elementary”) than the man of the novels, with his simple yet sophisticated tastes. This version of Graham is jittery and socially phobic; he’s more comfortable as the leader of his pack of adopted stray dogs than he is in the classroom, teaching FBI cadets at Quantico. Nonetheless, when his boss, Jack Crawford, pulls him into the field to investigate a grisly series of murders targeting teenage girls, Graham, allows himself to become entangled in the case.
Graham is also a direct descendant of “Millennium“‘s Frank Black, the FBI profiler with a “gift” of seeing into the minds of killers. In this case, Graham’s ability is more about empathy than his skill at visualizing crime scenes and re-winding the sequence of events that must have occurred to lead up to their current conditions; once he’s puzzled out the killer’s movements, Graham clues into his or her motivations. “This is my design,” he often says, as he recounts how the crime unfolded.
Crawford enlists Hannibal Lecter, an esteemed psychotherapist, both as Graham’s personal mental health task force and a consultant on the case, an arrangement that places the two men in a close working relationship that starts to blossom into something more like friendship. Lecter, for his part, is cool and crisp, a stark contrast to the sweaty, perpetually freaked-out Will, whose mental state deteriorates over the course of the season. As played by the extraordinary Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal is everything Hopkins made him, and everything Harris insinuated: Scary-smart and just plain scary, but also a genuine intellectual.
There’s an even greater satisfaction in how Lecter is the progenitor of the contemporary anti-hero, the protagonist who goes well beyond the picaresque and into moral hazard or even crazy-land. Would we have had Dexter without Lecter? Or “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White? Tony Soprano is often cited as the spark for this trend, but Lecter was there before Tony and, indeed, would have made literal mincemeat of him.
Because this is television, there’s more time to define the characters and explore them; where the movies had to skip over some of what made Lecter tick, the 13 episodes of Season One find moments, here and there, to incorporate some of the nuances of the character as written by Harris. Thus, we see Lecter debating the nature (and justice) of God with Graham in one exchange, and serving up slices of pork with a red fruit sauce to Crawford, with an electric undercurrent of ambiguity. (By “pork,” is Lecter talking about the other white meat…??)
Less successful, alas, is the way the series attempts to replicate Lecter’s sexually charged, but ominous, bons mots, as when, dining with Crawford, the gourmet playfully tosses out the line, “You promised to deliver your wife to my table.” But at least the writers are conscious of Lecter’s devilish habitual wordplay, and they do try to work with it.
The series uses other characters from the books and films, too, including tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds (female, in this case, and played by Lara Jean Chorostecki) and the smarmy Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza). New characters complete the cast, with “Kids in the Hall“‘s Scott Thompson featured as a lab tech with a decidedly gay affect. Starting in Season Five, if there is a season five, we might hope to meet Clarice Starling; what tender but also tough beauty will land that role?
The production uses state of the art visual effects and pushes the envelope on a weekly basis. (How do you get an image of a man playing a corpse like a cello past the network censors?) It also explores radical new territory in visual style and sound design. The set’s extras delve into these aspects of the series, and offer absorbing tidbits like the script and storyboard for the pilot episode.
"Hannibal" embraces its source material with the relish we want it to, and draws out the experience in the most delicious manner, setting out each installment like a dish on a 13-course menu. (Indeed, each episode is named for a course of an extravagant French meal, with titles like "Amuse-Bouche," "Entrée," ""Buffet Froid," and so on, right up to the season-ending "Savoureux." How Fuller will follow this up come Season Two (much less how he will execute the full seven-season run he has said he intends for the series) is, at this point, hard to guess —— but then again, so was this delectable first clutch of episodes before Fuller served us the "Apéritif" of the very first groundbreaking episode.
(A shorter version of this review appeared at EDGE.)