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The dream world and reality blend beautifully in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest from director/star Ben Stiller.

Stiller uses the short story by James Thurber—about a man prone to elaborate daydreams—as a springboard to something altogether new, and surprisingly intimate. This is essentially a $90 million art film that maintains a nice, indie sensibility to go along with moments of grand spectacle.

Stiller, in one of his best performances, plays the title character, an introverted man who handles photo negatives for Life magazine. After a vivid daydream in which he saves a cat from a building moments before it explodes, he wanders into Life’s lobby—and finds out the magazine will be going online-only. (This actually happened a while back in the real world. Life has been publishing only occasional special issues for years, and doesn’t even exist as its own full website anymore).

In other words, Walter, in the digital age, is quickly becoming an unnecessary entity at his job. To add insult to injury, he’s getting harassed by Ted (a sinisterly funny Adam Scott), the super-douche tasked with transitioning the magazine to its online format. Ted mocks him in front of fellow employees and throws paper clips as Walter daydreams about co-worker Cheryl (a sweetly charming Kristen Wiig). Walter imagines epic, crazily staged battles with Ted, including one in which they blast out of the side of the office building—all while battling over a Stretch Armstrong doll.

Crisis looms when a negative from star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the negative meant for the magazine’s final cover, goes missing. Walter, with help from Cheryl, springs into action on a quest to find the negative; the journey leads him through Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Along the way, he reignites former passions (like skateboarding and hiking)—and those daydreams become more and more unnecessary.

This movie qualifies as a nice love letter to Kristen Wiig, who represents possibly the coolest onscreen love interest on 2013. Her Cheryl has a nice accessibility to go along with her beauty and humor; it’s no wonder Walter has a crush. Stiller and Wiig have genuine chemistry, and Wiig’s performance here has none of her more zany comic tendencies.

Penn is downright incredible in his one scene, and Patton Oswalt shines as an eHarmony consultant who is so friendly that he could only be found in a movie. Shirley MacLaine (who will be at the McCallum Theatre later this month) is mighty convincing as Walter’s mom—no easy feat, considering most of us are acutely aware that Stiller’s mom is Anne Meara.

There’s nothing forced in Stiller’s depiction of Walter, and nothing jarring about the transition as he comes out of his shell. When we find out some of the reasons Walter lapsed into a life of daydreaming rather than dream fulfillment, Walter becomes a complete character rather than the fleeting representation from Thurber’s story.

Stiller’s performance varies between subtle and extremes, with most of those extremes happening in the daydreams. In the quieter moments, this is the sort of well-modulated performance that ranks with his work in The Royal Tenenbaums and Flirting With Disaster. He’s also a pretty good skateboarder; that’s really him riding at quite high speeds down a mountain road in Iceland.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh deserves major kudos for his stunning work here. Also notable is the soundtrack, with a roster of artists like David Bowie, Of Monsters and Men, and Arcade Fire; it truly bolsters the viewing experience.

The message Stiller is delivering is obvious: Many of our daydreams can be just a hop, skip and skateboard away from being realities. With its simple message elegantly and majestically portrayed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of 2013’s best movies.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Now that the holidays are over, it’s time for a breather.

During the month of January, the Coachella Valley is experiencing a slowdown in the number of music events—so it’s all about quality over quantity. Thankfully, there’s plenty of quality.

The McCallum Theatre will host Shirley MacLaine at 7 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19. MacLaine will be speaking about her experiences in Hollywood, her private life and her spiritual journey. Tickets are $35 to $75. Jazz vocal artist Patti Austin will be performing at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 28. Austin, best known for her 1981 duet “Baby, Come to Me” with James Ingram, is a live delight. Tickets are $35 to $75. At 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 31, and Saturday, Feb. 1, Pink Martini will take the stage. The modern-day alternative lounge-music act has always had a feel good vibe and will definitely put on a fun show. Tickets are $35 to $95. McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert; 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Fantasy Springs Resort Casino has a solid schedule throughout the month. The Golden Boys will be performing at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 3. The supergroup includes three heartthrobs from the early days of pop: Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian. They’ll be onstage together crooning each of their hits. For those who remember the heyday of these singers back in the ’50s, it will be a special night. Tickets are $29 to $59. And now for something completely different: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, Snoop Lion, aka Snoop Dogg, aka Snoop Doggy Dogg, will be performing in the Coachella Valley for the first time since his headlining slot with Dr. Dre at Coachella in 2012. It’s hard to predict what to expect from Snoop, since his recent conversion to Snoop Lion has also included a shift in sound. His most recent release, Reincarnated, is a reggae album; Snoop’s conversion to the Rastafarian religion was shown in the documentary with the same name. He was a no-show at a scheduled performance in Portland, Ore., a few months back, and he seems to be more open to being called Snoop Dogg again, so who knows what to expect? (He turned down an interview request from the Independent, for what it’s worth.) Tickets are $39 to $89. At 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 31, country-music star Martina McBride will close out the month in style. Her career goes all the way back to 1988, and she’s had quite a run ever since; she also has a new album slated for release in 2014. This should definitely be a treat for country-music fans. Tickets are $39 to $99. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio; 760-342-5000; www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa has a slower January compared to other recent months—but the resort’s schedule does feature an undeniable legend. At 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 24, country legend Dolly Parton will bring her classics to the Agua Caliente. The “9-to-5” singer is still going strong and is inspiring younger generations after being covered by artists like the White Stripes. Tickets were $90 to $160, but the show is sold out. The Show at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; 888-999-1995; www.hotwatercasino.com.

Spotlight 29 Casino has a couple of great events worth mentioning. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 11, comedienne Kathleen Madigan will be performing. Thanks in part to her high-profile comedy specials, including Gone Madigan on Showtime, she’s become a huge success. Tickets are $20 to $40. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 25, Morris Day and the Time will be performing with Sheila E. Morris Day is a well-known cult hero thanks to his song “Jungle Love.” Day was also in Prince’s Purple Rain as Prince’s nemesis. Speaking of Prince: His former drummer, Sheila E, will also be performing. Tickets are $25 to $45. Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place, Coachella; 760-775-5566; www.spotlight29.com

Morongo Casino Resort Spa doesn’t have much going on in January, but the Cabazon resort will kick off the next month with Foreigner, at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 1. While Mick Jones is the only remaining member, the band’s hits make them worth experiencing live. Also, for those of us who watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force, we know the powers of the “Foreigner Belt.” Tickets are $59 to $69. Morongo Casino Resort Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, Cabazon; 800-252-4499; www.morongocasinoresort.com.

Pappy and Harriet’s, meanwhile, has another great month of shows booked. At 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 9, Pappy’s will host the Bobby Nichols Band. The high-desert band is a hit with the local crowd, thanks to their smooth electronic instrumental grooves; it will be a perfect night to be in Pioneertown for dinner and a show. Admission is free. At 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10, The Palominos (right) will be performing. The San Diego based honky-tonk band is helping keep the California country music sound alive. This show is free, too. After hosting the Weirdos in December, Pappy’s will be hosting another punk band at 9 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19: Parquet Courts. Since forming in 2010 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the band has been a hit in the underground—and has even gained some attention from the mainstream music press. Tickets are $12. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; 760-365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com.

The Hood Bar and Pizza is unfortunately losing booking mastermind Brandon Henderson. The good news is he will be replaced by War Drum frontman Jack Kohler. At 9 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 9, The Hood will host its new Industry Night. DJ Bent will be spinning during the all-vinyl night. Attendance is free (21 and older). At 10 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 18, Flower Boy and Giselle Woo and the Night Owls will be playing. Attendance is again free (21 and older) The Independent wishes Brandon Henderson well in his new journey. The Hood Bar and Pizza, 74360 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-636-5220; www.thehoodbar.com.

We’re finally getting a better look at the Hard Rock Hotel’s entertainment plans. The hotel will now feature DJs every Friday and Saturday in the lobby from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., and poolside from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Hard Rock Palm Springs, 150 S. Palm Canyon Drive; 760-325-9676; www.hrhpalmsprings.com.

Vicky’s of Santa Fe has some great music events to go hand in hand with the restaurant’s fine dining. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 6:30 to 10 p.m., jazz musician Pat Rizzo performs with the All That Jazz Band. Every Tuesday, from 7 to 10 p.m., the restaurant features Michael Dees and Trio. Fans of swing music can enjoy Carolyn Martinez and Trio every Thursday from 6:30 to 10 p.m. John Stanley King performs every Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. Vicky’s of Santa Fe, 45100 Club Drive, Indian Wells; 760-345-9770; www.vickysofsantafe.com.

The Ace Hotel has added a monthly event to its lineup in the Amigo Room. At 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10, The Full House Band featuring Nena Anderson will perform “gypsy jazz,” Americana and Western swing. The event will be every second Friday of the month going forward. Attendance is free to those 21 and older.The Ace Hotel, 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 760-325-9900; www.acehotel.com/palmsprings.

The newly opened Copa Room is hopping; the new spot has a lot to offer thanks to its old-school lounge appeal. At 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Jan. 3 and 4, the Copa will host Well-Strung (below), an all-male string quartet playing the works of artists from to Mozart to Vivaldi to … Lady Gaga? Yes, that’s right. Tickets are $25 to $35. Check the Copa’s website, as the folks there were adding a variety of shows to the lineup as we went to press.The Copa Room, 244 E. Amado Road, Palm Springs; 760-866-0021; www.coparoomtickets.com.

Zena Bender, in collaboration with the folks at Radio Free Joshua Tree, will be holding a second fundraiser at the Sky Village Swap Meet in Yucca Valley, at 4 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 8. The nonprofit radio station was founded by Teddy Quinn to serve as an outlet for Coachella Valley and high-desert musicians, poets and artists. The effort is worth your support. A suggested donation is $10. Sky Village Swap Meet, 7028 Theatre Road, Yucca Valley; www.radiofreejoshuatree.com.

Published in Previews

As an example of how all over the map the McCallum Theatre’s 2013-2014 season offerings are, look at the first four shows.

The season begins on Oct. 13 with the theater’s Second Annual Family Fun Day, featuring the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater and its performing pooches and kitties (yes, performing cats; who knew?). That’s followed five days later by the first-ever performance of Alton Brown Live, a show featuring the off-kilter-in-a-good-way Food Network host. One week later, Mexican theater hit Frida: The Musical—performed entirely in Spanish—is on the boards. Next, country-music star Vince Gill will take the stage.

So … you have pet theater, followed by a goofy but educational chef, followed by a serious Spanish-language musical, followed by country music. And by the way, that’s all followed by a series of dance events that McCallum president/CEO Mitch Gershenfeld hopes will set the stage, so to speak, for a true international dance festival to sprout in Palm Desert.

Got all that?

“We’re trying to present diverse-enough programming to attract every segment of the community,” Gershenfeld says. “We don’t want to be elitist. We want to have a presence in all of the relevant performing-arts genres.”

In all, the 2013-2014 McCallum season lineup—which was announced earlier this week, with season-series tickets going on sale next week—includes more than six dozen shows that range from separate performances by greats Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera and Patti LuPone, to plays like Driving Miss Daisy, The Addams Family and Hello, Dolly! (staring … Sally Struthers?!), to dance by Pilobolus and the Moscow Classical Ballet, to something called Cesar Millan Live!

Gershenfeld says he uses a “market-driven approach” while booking the McCallum. In other words, he won’t bring in any show that he knows won’t get butts in seats. However, he says he’ll take a risk if he thinks he can convince the public that a show is worthy.

“If I feel like I can market it and make it work, I’ll do it,” he says.

Gershenfeld is about to enter his second year as the president and CEO of the McCallum, following the retirement last year of longtime head Ted Giatas. Before Giatas’ departure, Gershenfeld handled operations and booking at the McCallum for a dozen years—and he’s kept the booking gig as CEO. In all, the former symphony musician—he’s a tuba player—and theater producer has been booking shows for three decades.

When asked what shows he’s excited about in the upcoming season, he instantly mentions Peter and the Starcatcher, a fresh-from-Broadway play that nabbed five Tony Awards last year. The show, which offers a back-story of sorts for Peter Pan, will arrive at the McCallum March 28-30, 2014.

This show falls in that if-I-can-market-it category for Gershenfeld, he says, clarifying that while traveling Broadway musicals tend to sell well, non-musical plays can struggle when they lose the big names that often star in the shows in New York.

“I am going to talk about this play every chance I get this year,” Gershenfeld says.

And as for that Alton Brown show: It’s being produced by the same people who created the Mythbusters: Behind the Myths tour, and the McCallum is actually letting the producers use the theater for a week or so to “get the show going” before it officially premieres on Oct. 18. As a hint to what the show will be like, Gershenfeld notes that attendees in the first few rows will be given ponchos to wear.

Gershenfeld also points to the Bahia Orchestra Project show on Feb. 16, 2014, as something special. The project was founded in Brazil in 2007, modeled after El Sistema in Venezuela; organizers go into poor areas and provide youngsters with musical instruments, and teach the kids how to play. These Brazilian kids-turned-musicians, with help from star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, will play at the McCallum as part of their first North American tour.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear great music played by these young people who have had a rough go in life,” Gershenfeld says.

Gershenfeld says his goal every season, of course, is to top the previous one, although he concedes that the now-concluding McCallum series—the theater’s 25th anniversary season—was “really good,” and the best-attended since 2007-2008 and the Great Recession.

“I hope people respond to this (upcoming) season as well as the last,” Gershenfeld says.

For more information on the season, or to buy season subscriptions (starting Monday, April 8), visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance