Movie Review: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn
Director
Ben Stiller

Hollywood has been actively trying to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for nearly two decades, with names like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen all attached at some point in one capacity or another. It’s curious, then, that the way the movie finally ended up getting made was to not remake it all. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t really resemble James Thurber’s 1939 short story (or the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye) that much apart from its daydreaming title character, although that was probably for the best. While Stiller has retained the core spirit of the original story, he’s produced a more modernized, feel-good road movie that’s got a bit of a “Forrest Gump” vibe to it without quite the same heavy-handedness.

Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a timid photo editor at Life Magazine who has a tendency to zone out, getting lost in elaborate daydreams where he’s as adventurous and brave as he wishes he could be in real life. Walter can’t even muster up the courage to speak with office crush Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), and he’s running out of time after it’s revealed that the magazine is transitioning from print to a digital-only publication, with layoffs imminent. When a new film roll from renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) arrives at the office one day, Walter discovers that negative #25 – the one intended for the cover of Life’s final issue – is missing. With his condescending boss (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter embarks on the first adventure of his life to track down Sean, and hopefully, the missing photo too.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Between Two Ferns

Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”

The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.

The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.

A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: ‘Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a new weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” (2012)

Everyone who’s kept up with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim comedy block over the past few years has heard of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the masterminds behind “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” And everyone who’s watched the show knows that after seeing it you’ll a) never be able to watch commercials the same way again, and b) notice how much influence these two fellas have had over what is now considered “mainstream” comedy.

“Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” was a sketch show that ran from 2007 to 2010. It was freakin’ weird, to say the least, and its surrealistic, satirical humor mocking advertisements, public-access television, and everything in between has since spawned a spin-off, “Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule,” which stars John C. Reilly, and the full-length feature “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” (B$M).

Here’s the thing about Tim and Eric: you seriously don’t understand what I mean when I say “weird” until you’ve seen their work for yourself. Their brand of humor takes some getting used to, and there’s a reason each episode of the show only ran for 11 minutes. I’m about to wow you with a brand new saying, but sometimes, less is more. As a result, I’m somewhat skeptical of recommending “B$M” as your first dip into the T+E pool. You really should get your feet wet first with sketches like “Griddleman,” “Prices,” “Free House for You, Jim,” Tairy Greene’s Acting Seminars for Children, and some of Brule’s Rules, and maybe even watch a few full episodes of the show (there are always a couple streaming on the Adult Swim website) before committing yourself to 94 minutes of this stuff. That said, there’s a reason Tim and Eric were the best kept secret in American comedy for so long. And a lot of the best-known names in the genre, guys like Ben Stiller, Paul RuddWill Ferrell, John C. Reilly and, Zach Galifianakis, made appearances on the show (the last three went on to star in the movie). The full list of cameos is certainly jarring, you might look at it and wonder how the hell you’d never heard of a show with that many big names before.

Tim and Eric are hilarious, but certainly not for everyone, and their humor is almost unexplainable until you experience it firsthand. If you watch a few sketches and find yourself enjoying them, then check out the trailer for the “Billion Dollar Movie.” But their stuff is often hate it or love it, so don’t say I didn’t warn you if 30 minutes in you feel like you’re watching the worst film ever made. The thing is, anti-humor is part of the shtick. Tim and Eric’s work (but the film especially) is meant to provoke a strong reaction one way or the other. They were actually trying to repulse just as many people as they entertained. And in that, they’ve inarguably succeeded. Just look at the Netflix user reviews, they’re nearly all five stars or one, with very little in between.

“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” was released earlier this year through on-demand TV and web services—which I believe is the future of movies, why pay $10 each to sit in an uncomfortable theater when you can pool the money together without leaving the couch? But that’s a story for a different day. Anyway, I’ll give you the synopsis, but it’s really irrelevant. The fact that the guys could even string together a semi-coherent plot line to go along with their “jokes” is nothing short of amazing. What you need to know is this: It’s Tim and Eric. It’s a movie. Great job!

Tim and Eric are given a billion dollars to make a movie, but squander every dime… and the sinister Schlaaang corporation is pissed. With their lives at stake, the guys skip town in search of a way to pay the money back. When they happen upon a chance to rehabilitate a bankrupt mall full of vagrants, bizarre stores and a man-eating wolf that stalks the food court, they see dollar signs-a billion of them.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

  

The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Chris Elliott (“Eagleheart”)

Chris Elliott has comedy in his genes, courtesy of his father, Bob Elliott (of the legendary comedy team Bob & Ray), and he’s passed his abilities on to the next generation, as his daughter Abby Elliott proves week after week on “Saturday Night Live,” but, geez, enough about his dad and kid already. Surely it’s time to shine the spotlight solely on Chris Elliott himself, who first won our hearts with his decidedly unique characters on “Late Night with David Letterman,” completely blew the minds of a generation of moviegoers with his film “Cabin Boy,” and has since gone on to appear in everything from “Manhunter” to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” On April 12, his current endeavor – Adult Swim’s “Eagleheart” – returns for its second season, just over a week after the DVD release of Season One, which hit stores on Tuesday. Bullz-Eye chatted with him…okay, fine, we geeked out…about the more eccentric side of his comedy, including his seminal TV series “Get A Life,” which, as you may have read elsewhere first (although it came from this interview), is coming to DVD in a complete-series set at long last.

Bullz-Eye: First off, let me just tell you what a pleasure it is to talk to you. I’ve been a fan for many years.

Chris Elliott: Oh, well, thank you. I just don’t hear that enough. [Laughs.]

BE: In my case, it’s no exaggeration: when I was in high school, I sent off for tickets for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Granted, I had graduated by the time I actually got them, but, hey, at least I got them.

CE: Oh, my gosh. That’s pretty funny. So did you actually wait four years for tickets?

BE: No, but it was more than a year: I sent them off during my senior year, and it was well after graduation when they finally arrived.

CE: Wow, that’s pretty amazing. But it proves that you were a hardcore fan. Do you remember who was on the show when you went?

BE: Absolutely: it was Jane Pauley and Bruno Kirby. I also remember that they did Shoe Removal Races that night, with a podiatrist squaring off against a shoe salesman.

CE: Ah, yes, that was an excellent episode. [Laughs.]

BE: You were actually just on Letterman’s show a few nights ago. It sounded like you may have taken a bit of flour into your lungs.

CE: [Laughs.] I started to smell like cookies after I was under the lights for a little while. But I thought it came off all right. It’s always fun to go back there, and I hate coming back on there as myself in any form. This interview is okay because I can’t see you. [Laughs.] But I don’t like coming on and just talking as myself, so I always come on with something.

BE: The “Downton Abbey” thing was great, too.

CE: Yeah, I thought that came out great.

BE: So let’s talk “Eagleheart.” One of the most surprising things about the series, at least to me, is that you don’t actually get a writing credit on the show. Not that you don’t have some input, given that you’re a consulting producer, but…

CE: I’d say these guys have my voice down. I knew that when I met with them. They were huge fans of mine, and, honestly, I didn’t want the extra work. [Laughs.] And at the same time, y’know, they changed the pilot quite a bit to suit me, and what I do – and Adam Resnick does this, also – is sort of take a pass at the scripts when they’re done with them and change a couple of jokes here and there, and if something’s not quite in my voice, I just kind of paraphrase what I would be saying, and that sort of thing. I’m sort of at the point in my career where writers that are working in the business sort of grew up knowing about me. At least the ones that are fans of mine, anyway. And they’re really capable of writing for me. It wasn’t always that case. Early on in my career, it was pretty much Adam and me just trying to establish this voice.

BE: Of course, it makes me wonder if people sometimes come to you with something utterly off the wall, saying, “Well, ‘Cabin Boy’ was so nuts that I figured you’d be into this.’

CE: Yeah, I think I get that a lot. It’s interesting: some people put anything weird in the “weird” category and think, “Oh, Chris’ll do that because it’s so weird.” But you’re right. Certain people, like yourself, get why certain things are funny-weird as opposed to just being strange. That’s a different breed. I think I do get lumped in a lot with “he’s just off the wall, he’s crazy.”

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The Light from the TV Shows: David Steinberg Gets “Inside Comedy” on Showtime

David Steinberg began his career in comedy with Chicago’s Second City, quickly gaining fame as a stand-up through his appearances on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” while also courting controversy by performing comedic “sermons” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” In 1981, Steinberg began to shift his focus from performing to directing, starting with the Burt Reynolds film “Paternity,” and has gone on to become one of the more prolific sitcom directors in the business, but he recently stepped back in front of the camera to host the new Showtime series, Inside Comedy,” which airs Thursdays at 11 PM. Steinberg spoke with Bullz-Eye about his new gig, detailing the trials and tribulations of securing classic clips to accompany his interviews, while also discussing some of his past efforts as an actor, director, and stand-up comedian.

[NOTE: All photos appear courtesy of TheDavidSteinberg.com.]

Bullz-Eye: This is certainly not your first time hosting a show where you interview comedians: you also brought us Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg. Not that there isn’t still plenty of material yet to mine, but what inspired you to take another crack at it?

David Steinberg: I felt that I hadn’t really done it the way I wanted to. That’s why we first started this as a film. Starting it as a film was really good, because then you get so much material, and it’s sort of looser or whatever. And then I settled on this notion of putting two people together and how they connect, but not in any specific ways. They just go together by what they’re talking about. And once I arrived at that, I thought, “This is gonna be good!” [Laughs.] Of course, making it that good…it was time consuming, but it was great, great fun. I worked with some incredible editors, and there was a lot of archival stuff that we talk about that…well, they know that they’re talking to another comedian. That’s the bottom line. And then, archivally, I didn’t just do the clichéd version. I handpicked the clips that I wanted and then begged people to let me use them. [Laughs.] Archival stuff takes so long to get people to sign off on.

BE: Was there anything you wanted to use that, even with all of your pleading, you still couldn’t get?

DS: Yeah, for Jonathan Winters, I had a clip of him in an old Dean Martin roast where he’s roasting (Ronald) Reagan, and in it there’s a wide shot where you could see Dean Martin, Reagan, (Don) Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and… [Sighs.] You know, it’s generally not the original inheritors of the celebrity estates that are the problem. It’s the grandchildren, who don’t even know or understand what it means to be celebrating Jonathan Winters. They asked for so much money everywhere that we couldn’t use it. I ended up having to go with just a tight shot of Jonathan instead. So, y’know, just stuff like that drove me nuts. For the most part, though, I got everything I wanted. Some were just so exorbitant that I just couldn’t do it. But I’m happy with it.

BE: Speaking of Jonathan Winters on Showtime, he also appeared on The Green Room with Paul Provenza not so terribly long ago. It’s great to see people as yourself and Paul continuing to give him the props he deserves.

DS: That’s right, yeah. I will say that the younger comedians tend to look after the older ones. Richard Lewis goes out to Santa Barbara and spends time with him, and Sarah Silverman has done that with Phyllis Diller. It’s very interesting, the comedy community. It’s more surprising and tight-knit than you would imagine.

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