Redemption (2013)

In Redemption, a former British soldier who endured a tragic episode during his tour of duty in Afghanistan tries to put his life back together and gets some unexpected help from a local crime lord and a Polish nun.

redemptionUK
2.5*

Director:
Steven Knight
Screenwriter:
Steven Knight

Director of Photography:
Chris Menges

Alternate title: Hummingbird

Running time: 100 minutes

Although his name points to potentially religious overtones that could dovetail with the film’s title, Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), who shares his name with the founder of Mormonism, never projects any measure of spirituality. In fact, the closest he comes to addressing issues of faith is his occasional but very cursory reflections on whether his behaviour is good enough to redeem him from past mistakes.

Unfortunately, given their implicit significance for Joey, Redemption spends precious little time fleshing out these past mistakes. The opening scene, which is deliberately fragmentary but whose inadequacy and bad staging is revealed in later scenes that slightly elaborate on the action, is apparently the inflection point for Joey. In Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province, Western military men are shot to pieces; shortly afterwards, a Middle Eastern man is marched through a market towards certain death at the hands of his captor, a Western soldier. This seemingly random scene, the only one to take place in Afghanistan, is one of Joey’s mistakes.

But it is also one of the film’s mistakes because the parts are so disjointed that the director already loses us in the opening seconds. We tell ourselves that, “Obviously, the importance will be revealed later in the film”, but the only reason the shootout is memorable is because it looks so bad: There is no setup of place nor character, and we merely get a shot of six seated men in uniform suddenly starting to shake violently to the rhythm of gunfire on the soundtrack before they spit blood. This is gruesome, but we don’t see why we should care. When we realise much later that this was in fact a point-of-view shot, the setup (and the observer’s apparent ability to escape this bloodshed entirely) makes even less sense.

Following this prologue, the narrative quickly shifts gears to one year later on the streets of London, where we find the city’s homeless being preyed on by a small group of aggressive scoundrels. One of the vagrants hits back with some surprising skill and manages to flee the scene. He ends up breaking into a vacant apartment in the city centre, behind Soho and Temple, which he will occupy for the rest of the story as he puts the pieces of his life back in order. His real name is Joey Smith, but the time has come for him to reshape his identity – and with it, his destiny.

However, the story of the apartment is a little too ridiculous for words. It belongs to a well-known photographer who has conveniently left for six months in New York City without setting the alarm. Also, perhaps most preposterously, this man’s wardrobe fits Joey like a glove. In fact, it would not have been much of a stretch to expect a revelation that Joey is in fact the same photographer, a fellow called Damon, but with amnesia, as we never see what the real tenant looks like until the very end of the film. Such a turn of events would not have been much worse than what we get here.

Joey befriends a Polish nun who serves soup to the homeless, initially to ask about the whereabouts of Isabel, a girl with whom he used to share a cardboard box on the street. This relationship with Isabel is sorely underexplained, and it is impossible to imagine why he is so desperate to find her. On a parallel track, some people from his past turn up, but they serve as mere reminders of a life that is a world away, and aside from the vague contours of the war in Afghanistan there is no account of the twists and turns that led him to this point. 

The nun, Cristina, another character with a religion-inflected name, is another blank slate whom we know little about until late in the film when she abruptly becomes a major part of the storyline, even though Joey’s own development is shallow and has very few milestones.

Luckily, Benedict Wong brings some gravitas to the proceedings in his role as Mr. Choy, a senior figure in one of London’s triads. Word from Joey’s employer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, reaches him that this is a man who knows how to fight back, and before long Joey works for Mr. Choy and drives around the City doing dirty work with a poker face and receiving wads of cash that he ends up stuffing in his (rather, Damon’s) freezer.

Redemption‘s visual style is as muddled as its content. At various points, there are unexplained inserts of grainy footage taken from the perspective of a surveillance camera or a drone, and while the latter refers back to Joey’s time in Afghanistan, the visuals are too infrequent, too inconsequential and too inconsistent for the film to utilise them in an effective manner, and the connection to the events onscreen is tenuous at best. By contrast, compare the masterful inclusion of surveillance and other unconventionally obtained footage in David Ayer’s End of Watch.

Although more restrained than most other films starring Jason Statham, the film does not have the talent behind it to make the most of its Afghanistan setting nor the intelligence to increase the relevance of the drone shots. Statham is a calming presence in the middle of much that is directionless, but director Steven Knight would have to wait until his subsequent film, Locke, to redeem himself.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Daydreams and a little push finally get one man out of his comfort zone, taking him on a wild and ever more fantastical journey from the Big Apple to Iceland to the foothills of the Himalayas in north-eastern Afghanistan.

The Secret Life of Walter MittyUSA
3.5*

Director:
Ben Stiller

Screenwriter:
Steve Conrad

Director of Photography:
Stuart Dryburgh

Running time: 115 minutes

There is always fun to be had whenever Ben Stiller steps behind the camera. From Zoolander to Tropic Thunder, his characters have been memorable in a way very few others have managed: They are oddballs, but even though they don’t arouse much sympathy, they stick with us.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is slightly different, because it is less inclined towards entertaining us and more towards thrilling us with the notion that it’s never too late to be adventurous, and that there is a Magellan inside all of us. The level of storytelling isn’t elevated far above Stiller’s previous pictures, but despite its flaws, it is certainly more mature.

The film is the second attempt at bringing James Thurber’s original 2,000-word story from 1939 to the big screen. The short story had little going for it: Basically, Walter Mitty drove his wife to the hairdresser, picked up “overshoes” because she had told him to, bought dog biscuits and then picked her up again, all while daydreaming about adventures in alternating paragraphs.

The first director to try his hand at the story was Norman McLeod, but the film he produced, released in 1947, is filled with an embarrassingly weak central character who faces farcical situations at home, while his many alter egos takes on life and death in his fantasies.

Stiller’s film is certainly an improvement on that, because the daydreams that pepper the opening act – and they do unfortunately become tedious to the extent that we no longer care what happens, since we know it is merely a temporary digression from reality – eventually morph into adventure in Walter Mitty’s (Stiller) own life, when he jumps from a helicopter into shark-infested waters off the coast of Greenland, skates down a long and winding road in the Icelandic countryside while a volcano erupts close by, and climbs a mountain in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush where he spots the elusive snow leopard.

But let’s back up for a second – there are a few interlocking parts to this plot.

The reason Mitty embarks on the journey of a lifetime is because he is after the missing negative of a photo that is supposed to be the final cover of LIFE Magazine, where he works as the negative asset manager. The company’s product is about to be turned into a digital-only publication, and personnel cuts are imminent, but he has his eye on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who has only just started working there.

With only three other photos as clues – one of someone’s finger, the other of a body of water with the word “Erkigsnek”, and the last of what looks like a piece of wood – he sets off on a mission to find the magazine’s nomadic photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who was last seen somewhere close to the capital of Greenland.

It is not always clear how Mitty manages to follow O’Connell’s trail, but he is constantly on the move, being pushed ever onward by visions of Cheryl telling him to go while channelling David Bowie. And we certainly feel privileged to experience this rush of adrenaline along with him. Although it is obvious from the first moment we see Greenland that the scenes here were actually shot on Iceland, the scenes on the Northern Hemisphere’s largest island do provide a magical moment when Mitty, once again lost in thought, realises the opportunity to escape from a life of absolute safety and monotony is upon him, and he catches the flight to a destination unknown.

The scenes on these two islands are stunning and filled with unusual characters (a drunk helicopter pilot played by the powerhouse Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is a particular thrill) and extraordinary situations, including the eruption of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.

Unfortunately, the scenery and the events make us question the necessity of the action set in New York City, either at the office or out and about with Cheryl, who is clearly fond of Mitty, but having recently separated from her husband, she seems to be hesitant to jump right back into the waters of the dating world.

But perhaps that was the point all along: The real world sucks, and that is why Mitty chooses to daydream. New York City is also the scene of family drama, and thanks to his chirpy mother (Shirley MacLaine) we learn the obstacle to him embracing his wild side was the death of his father, which left the family without money and forced him to start work when he was a teenager. This back story easily explains why Steven Spielberg had toyed with the idea of directing the film back in 2003.

Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a Spike Jonze quality to it, especially as imagination and reality often flow into each other, and the imagery of water or ripples found throughout is very fitting, beautifully captured by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).

There are odd digressions, including a wholly unbefitting homage to (or spoof of, depending on your perspective) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it is a bit of a surprise to find Mitty leaving on a flight into so-called “Ungoverned Afghanistan” at the drop of a hat without so much as applying for a visa. Even the final revelation just before the closing credits, which is absolutely picture-perfect, lacks a greater punch because it doesn’t have much of a foundation to support it, and despite the film’s best efforts at touching us, it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes us on a wonderful ride through exquisite locations, but while the screenplay breathes life into the short story, it only hints at a well of emotions that are never explored and, sadly for us, remain a secret part of the life of Walter Mitty.