No matter how pure the intentions or sweet the end result, Ben Stiller's post-modern re-imagining of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the ultimate midlife-crisis movie. As the daydreaming Life magazine photo archivist who challenges the boundaries between reality and fantasy (first portrayed by Danny Kaye in the 1947 film), Stiller embodies the character with a wide-eyed yet taciturn naïveté that feels entirely programmed. There's never any doubt that his corporatized fairy tale will end in emotional epiphany, witnessed by the audience like some biblical awakening in glorious widescreen.
Stiller, director of subversive comedic gems like Tropic Thunder and The Cable Guy, relies on a much softer tone in Walter Mitty. While conflict flies in from every conceivable angle, whether it's the impending closure of the character's longtime print employer or his romantic pursuit of a fellow coworker (Kristin Wiig), it's all conveyed in a very demure way. The threatening reality of transition pushes Walter from feeble workman to fearless man of action, globetrotting to Iceland in pursuit of a nomadic journalist (played by a grungy Sean Penn) who holds the key to a mystery involving Life's final cover photo.
Erupting volcanoes, man-eating sharks and mountainous treks all form the foundation of life experience for a man who has for so long retreated into the recesses of his own imagination. Except the journey is shrouded in artificial drapery that's marked by emblems of capitalism and commerce.
In turn, the organic whimsy and discovery of Walter's life-affirming moments are rendered false, or, at the very least, commodified. By juxtaposing such joyful images with this kind of perversely pristine view of big-business America, Stiller's film—which opens on Christmas Day—undermines his character's true potential for transcendence. Walter's secret life ends up being just one big glossy advertisement for the next big product.
47 Ronin: After their master is killed by a ruthless shogun, a band of samurai set out for revenge. Why they asked Keanu Reeves for help is still a mystery.
Grudge Match: Two aged boxers (Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro) are coaxed back into the ring in order to capitalize on their longtime rivalry. Call us crazy, but we don't think this film will live up to Rocky or Raging Bull.
Justin Bieber's Believe: Yep, you read that correctly. Yet another behind-the-scenes documentary about the young pop star who can't help but find trouble wherever his pompadour lands.
Khumba: An animated film about a zebra marked as an outcast after he's born with only half his stripes. His herd blames him for the current drought, forcing Khumba to embark on a journey to find a magical watering hole. Screens through Jan. 2 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Maidentrip: Laura Decker, a daring 14-year-old girl, embarks on a two-year voyage, hoping to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. Screens through Jan. 2 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Ben Stiller revamps the 1947 Danny Kaye classic with a bigger budget and a bigger emphasis on the healing power of corporate products.
The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese's sprawling comedic look at the rise and fall of Wall Street huckster Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who became an infamous figure in New York City in the 1990s.
One Time Only
Black Pond: British comedy with sharp dialogue about a family torn apart when a dinner guest dies at the table. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 30, at the San Diego Public Library in East Village.
The Ref: Dennis Leary plays a cat burglar who gets caught up in the squabbles of a hateful married couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) after he's forced to take them hostage during a botched robbery. Screens at 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 30, at The W Hotel's rooftop bar.
American Hustle: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in David O'Russell's retelling of the infamous Abscam sting established by the FBI in order to capture corrupt politicians and gangsters in the late 1970s.
Anchorman: The Legend Continues: Infamous San Diego newscaster and lothario Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell) brings his motley crew of wacky colleagues to New York City in hopes of making it big on a national television channel.
Desert Runners: Ultra-marathoners and their experiences traversing some of the world's most dangerous landscapes are the focus of this intense and personal documentary by Jennifer Steinman. Through Dec. 26 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Joel and Ethan Coen's latest odyssey is set in 1961 Greenwich Village, where a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) comes to grips with his failure as an artist and a human being.
Nosotros Los Nobles: A business mogul forces his spoiled children to work for a living if they want to have a chance at inheriting the family fortune. This comedy from Mexico was a box-office sensation in its home country. Through Dec. 26 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Saving Mr. Banks: Marry Poppins scribe P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) travels to Los Angeles to discuss a potential film adaptation by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in this whimsical biopic about two artists struggling to compromise.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), please meet Smaug, fire-breathing dragon and protector of all things gold. Have a nice three hours together.
Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas: Filmmaker Tyler Perry's wildly popular fictional creation, the titular massive and sassy grandma, wreaks havoc on a small rural town during the holiday season.
Narco Cultura: The rise of corridos, folk songs that celebrate narco culture and violence, is juxtaposed with the real-world consequences of the bloody drug war in Mexico. Screens at AMC Palm Promenade in Ocean Crest.
Out of the Furnace: The hills of Appalachia are alive with the sound of violence in this mountain noir starring Christian Bale as a blue-collar worker attempting to find his kidnapped brother (Casey Affleck), who's being held by a local gangster (Woody Harrelson).
The Book Thief: A young girl faced with the horrors of Nazi Germany steals books as an act of defiance and begins sharing them with Jewish refugees. Markus Zusak's best-selling novel comes to the big screen in this adaptation starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Homefront: Jason Statham plays a former DEA agent who retires to a backwoods town only to find more trouble in the form of a country gangster (James Franco!) looking to protect his drug operations.
Nebraska: Aged retiree Woody (Bruce Dern) is determined to collect his winnings after receiving a phony sweepstakes letter, eventually dragging his reluctant son (Will Forte) on a road trip that'll change both of their lives. Alexander Payne's latest is a melancholic ode to family and the Midwest.
Philomena: Comedian Steve Coogan takes on a more serious role as a cynical journalist who ends up helping an elderly woman (Judi Dench) search for her long lost son. Oscar nominations are a certainty.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself once again fighting to survive the titular death match that has become a necessary evil in the dystopic future.
Delivery Man: Vince Vaughn's man-child finds out he has fathered 533 children after donating to a sperm bank for decades. Hollywood at its finest.
The Best Man Holiday: A collection of college friends reunite for the holidays after 15 years, revealing a host of grudges and romantic intentions that have been simmering under the surface for years.
Dallas Buyers Club: In 1985, a drunken rodeo clown Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughy) learns he has HIV. Seeing an opportunity to stave off his own death and make some money, he begins smuggling unapproved drugs in from Mexico.
Mysteries of the Unseen World: This amazing documentary uses high-speed and time-lapse photography to focus on things that are either too fast or two slow for the eye to see. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Thor: The Dark World: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) once again brings the hammer down on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to save the human race and sustain the fragile balance of his own kingdom.
12 Years a Slave: Abducted and forced to work on a Southern plantation, free man Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejifor) experiences the horrors of slavery in Steve McQueen's stirring period-piece drama.
About Time: In Richard Curtis' (Love Actually) charming modern fable co-starring Rachel McAdams, a young man discovers he can travel through time and seeks to use his power to find his soul mate.
Ender's Game: Orson Scott Card's classic sci-fi novel about a young pilot fending off an alien threat finally gets adapted for the big screen, surely angering fans everywhere. Harrison Ford co-stars as a growling general.
Last Vegas: A foursome of aging Oscar-winning actors (Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert De Niro) play seniors who head to Las Vegas for one final hurrah of debauchery and camaraderie.
All is Lost: A nameless Man (Robert Redford) battles extreme weather and technology failure to keep his small sailboat afloat in this thrilling tale of survival from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call).
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: After grossing out America in 3-D, Johnny Knoxville gives his grumpy, ill-mannered, senior-citizen sketch character a feature-film platform.
Captain Phillips: Based on actual events, this thriller by director Paul Greengrass tells the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama and its leader, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), who was kidnapped by Somali pirates during a voyage in 2009.
Deep Sea: A glorious ocean exploration with Del Mar's own veteran underwater filmmakers and explorers, Howard and Michele Hall. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Gravity: Sandra Bullock plays a marooned astronaut struggling to survive an epic space disaster in Alfonso Cuarón's breathless adventure film.
Cosmic Collisions: So, that asteroid that might smash into Earth in 20 years is much bigger than previously thought? Awesome. This new IMAX movie at the Reuben H. Fleet looks at what happens when things bash into each other in outer space. On the bright side, if we go the way of the dinosaurs, at least future species will have a new source of fossil fuels.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.