Review: Where the Wild Things Are

October 18, 2009

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FROM JASON’S MOVIE TICKET — I don’t want to be this guy, but I have to say it: The movie wasn’t really much like the book.

I mean, how could it be? The hard-copy version of Where the Wild Things Are is a whopping 10 sentences long. Let’s be honest: Author Maurice Sendak spoke more to us in pictures than words. But where the 1963 short children’s tale shows a young boy reveling in his imagination to “master his feelings,” the 2009 Spike Jonze adaptation is a ponderous ode to broken homes, loneliness, and the suburban blues. There’s no joyful escapism here — even the monsters have traded in their pure rumpus ways and toothy grins for emotional demons.

There are no answers, either. The troubling realities of Max’s anger and frustration, his fractured relationship with his sister, and his mother’s looming unemployment are all still waiting for him, no matter what personal discoveries he’s made by the end of Jonze’s retelling. We see our young Max wrestle to come to terms with his “growth, survival, change, and fury,” as Sendak puts it. But Jonze has no solution, no happy ending except for warm soup waiting at the dinner table.

This is heavy stuff — too heavy for the children who were packed into the theater when I saw the matinee Sunday. It was the first PG film I’ve seen in a while, and that rating didn’t help send signals to Grandma and Grandpa Midwestern America that this was no Pixar song-and-joke gig. The four- and five-year-olds expected My Pet Monster, not Being John Malkovich.

Misplaced marketing doesn’t mean the film was a failure. It just wasn’t the bedtime story we thought it was, full of color and comfort and joy.

Don’t let me sound like the flick’s a waste. It shines in many departments, not the least of which is the setting. Timing is just as important as location — and 90 percent of Where the Wild Things Are seems to take place in those waning moments during the last sun-drenched minutes of the day and dusk, just when the sun is losing its life. That’s when my imagination was always strongest as a boy, after all.

It’s clear that Jonze is attuned to that primal way kids think. He just gets childhood, or at least the kind I had — the version experienced by an outcast trying to understand the very adult situations all around him, and struggling to analyze context with no experience.

Let’s not overlook the acting. Eleven-year-old Max Records seemed like he’s had 20 years of acting experience and was able to show us a depth I didn’t expect from a child actor. James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, and the criminally-underrated Chris Cooper were so convincing as Wild Things that I forgot they were celebrities and simply accepted them as characters.

And then there’s the costuming. While it’s obvious the Wild Things are people in suits, what is dazzling is the range of emotions that the Jim Henson wizards manage to get from their faces (there is some CG overlay, too, but it all looks completely lifelike). They might as well be real creatures, raised in the East Village and coached by Shakespearean actors.

The dream-like soundtrack is what tied everything together, though. Without it, I might have tuned out early.

A couple of quick notes: To date, Where the Wild Things Are is ranked at 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.5/10 on IMDB. It also grossed $32.5 million in the opening weekend, in part due to the two $4 tickets I purchased.

To close, let me just address the “debate” about whether the island of the monsters is real. In Sendak’s book, the forest grew out of Max’s imagination. In the movie, though, Max runs away. We never see him bump his head. There is a seamless transition through the nightmare city streets and backyards to the sailboat that carries Max away. We see him leave and return with no obvious trauma. I choose to think it’s real, in much the same way I choose to think Douglas Quaid really went to Mars.

That is all.

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Even when I watch TV, I’m not watching TV

August 7, 2009

tvFROM JASON’S DESK, NOT HIS COUCH — I don’t watch television anymore, although I do watch an awful lot of television shows.

Apparently, television has never been more popular. Nielsen Media Research said in February that the average American watches 151 hours each month — up from 145 hours during the same span last year.

And as electronics become cheaper and the technology curve continues its exponential spike, televisions continue to fly off the shelves. There are an estimated two billion sets worldwide. In the United States, more than half of all homes now have three or more, with the average of all homes at 2.86, Nielsen’s Television Audience Report concluded. Two decades ago (1990), the average was just two television sets per home.

Now, Nielsen says as of July, there are actually more televisions in the States than there are people. (The nation’s population is estimated at 304 million.)

sets_per_homeI certainly have contributed to the jump. Not only do I have the 42-inch plasma in my living room, but I’ve got the 36-inch set in my bedroom, the 38-inch box in my den, and a 19-incher on the kitchen counter.

The truth is that I watch none of them. My television viewing is done online these days — and so by all rights it should be called webivision viewing. Corporate sites like Hulu, YouTube, and [AdultSwim], combined with the greymarket of TV Links and QuickSilverScreen, have supplanted the need for a crude television set.

The results have been disastrous, serving only to further erode my limited attention span. I used to slump in front of the tube and keep my eyes glued to it… now I can hardly watch five minutes without opening new tabs, checking mail, catching up on a forum argument, catching a quick webcomic, or browsing my Google Reader subscriptions. It makes for a much more franetic, less-informed, even cheapened viewing experience.

Widespread availability of show content doesn’t help, either. It used to be that I had to wait from week to week to get the next episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Boston Legal, Arrested Development, or what have you. That built in the element of delayed gratification: distance makes the heart grow fonder, and all that. Now I can hit Hulu and be watching any or all episodes of Dead Like Me or Sliders inside 20 seconds. It’s like celebrating Christmas everyday; it sounds great, but after a while, the presents just aren’t special anymore.

And that means I’m less likely to watch and appreciate all of any given show. There is far more Grade-A content out there to watch now than I can ever consume, which means I’m not obligated to stick with the cream of the crop through to completion and I can float on to the next pilot or premise that catches my wafting interest. That’s why I’ve only made it through the first three episodes of Spaced since Hulu posted the first and second seasons last week.

There’s no pressure to get those episodes while the getting’s good.

Meanwhile, my big plasma upstairs is being slowly tortured. It’s stuck by wifely command on HGTV for hours at a time, with breaks for Live with Regis and Kelly, The Bonnie Hunt Show, or any fashion/cooking reality show aired by Bravo. That poor television must be begging for the sweet release of death.

I honestly can’t remember the last movie I watched on that blessed set. It was probably Transformers: The Movie from 1984 (the animated one). If it weren’t for the wife, the plasma would be hooked up to my computer. Were I a betting man, I’d say it’s only a matter of time before all televisions are just Net receptors, and that traditional, passive cable or satellite are going the way of the dinosaur.

That is, if the companies that control media can get their noses out of their proverbial asses and get in touch with the inevitable realities of our shifting culture.


No exaggeration — Transmorphers is movie diarrhea

August 5, 2009

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FROM JASON’S ETERNAL DISMAY — I have seen the face of evil, and it is Transmorphers.

God damn you to hell, Netflix. I finally decide to sign up, and this is what you give me? Sure, I asked for it. Sure, I sat and watched it. Sure, I’m a sucker for a terrible movie. But even my ironic and self-flagellating love of horrible C-list films didn’t prepare me for this.

Let’s start with metrics. Netflix users give Transmorphers a 1.9 stars out of five. More discriminating users of IMDB give it a 1.9 out of 10 — making the 2007 film from The Asylum the single worst-rated movie I have ever indulged in, worse even than Going Overboard starring Adam Sandler, heretofore believed to be the single most despicable film in circulation.

The Asylum, of course, is the direct-to-video “mockbuster” filmhouse behind other such gems as The Terminators, Street Racer, Universal Soldiers, Snakes on a Train, and The Da Vinci Treasure. They even drew very direct legal ire from Fox not too long ago for… wait for it… a release called The Day the Earth Stopped.

From the jacket: A race of alien robots has conquered the Earth and forced humanity underground. After three hundred years of domination, a small group of humans develop a plan to defeat the mechanical invaders in the ultimate battle between man and machine.

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Not only does Transmorphers (originally titled Robot Wars) prey on its obvious titular counterpart (it was released a week prior to Michael Bay’s Transformers), but it also cannibalizes conventions from The Matrix and The Terminator. There are lots of sunglasses at night. There’s a hidden city full of human resistance fighters (that might as well be Zion). There’s lots of faux leather. The robots have plunged Earth into eternal darkness. There’s EMP. There are machines that think they are human. There are armies of bipedal robuts and what amounts to Skynet controlling them all.

Thank god there’s no time travel.

There’s also an awkward lesbian subplot, an implied sex-bot, effects that look like Ray Harryhausen crammed them onto a mid-90s CD-ROM game, long and preachy expository scenes filled with the worst kind of dialog, even lousier delivery, and what I can honestly say is the most “amazing” green screen speeder bike chase ever captured on film.

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I’m trying not to embellish here. There’s very little praise I can conjure though for a film where the same person shouts that the attacking robots have “breached all perimeters” not once, not twice, but three times — about 15 minutes apart each time. You can only breach all perimeters once. After that, they’re all breached.

In short, Transmorphers has all the style and substance of Cleopatra 2525, all the originality of a knock-knock joke, and all the sophistication of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. And it seems to be made completely in earnest.

I guess writer/director Leigh Scott understands at least that this isn’t Lawrence of Arabia. On his blog, he wrote:

The idea of trying to make a futuristic period piece with giant robots with the budget of the average AFI short film was a challenge that I couldn’t resist. While most people in Hollywood marvel at their own excess, I have often been obsessed with the exact opposite; doing the impossible for absolutely no money. Was it a disaster? Sure. Was it fun? Absolutely.

Later on the same blog:

Look, genre movies are a mathematical equation. 50% visuals. 50% sound. So, there was a sync issue on Transmorphers…there goes 50%. Then we couldn’t afford a dolly so take away 10% of the visuals. Dock it 10% because we didn’t discover the awesome set that is featured in the first ten minutes until months after principal photography. Then take away 20% because the film is called Transmorphers and the robots are lame and don’t really Transmorph that much. So, you have 10% of a movie there.

There are some films that are so bad you groan, and it’s fun. This one, though, transcends that feeling. It’s the kind of movie you inflict on unsuspecting friends as revenge for dating your little sister. It’s the kind of movie you pop in to clear the room when unwanted guests are camping out at your house. It’s the kind of movie that you use to pry information out of terrorists in a ticking time-bomb scenario. It’s the kind of movie you use to punish small children for wetting the bed.

Don’t watch it. I already watched it for you, and the scars aren’t likely to heal anytime soon. To my dear friend Richard Smith, I’d be willing to pit Transmorphers against APEX any day.


Mary… Poppins? Musical theater isn’t my thing.

July 25, 2009

poppinsFROM JASON’S LONG, SAD AFTERNOON — Andrew and I have often discussed our very different opinions on musical theater. I am not fond of it, while he tends to be a fan.

Two-and-a-half hours trapped today in a balcony seat affirmed why I eschew this particular medium. It’s the singing. And the dancing.

Please don’t misunderstand; both in small doses can be just fine. But the live version of Disney’s Mary Poppins can’t stand against the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. On stage, the actors put so much weight into the song-and-dance routines that they miss out on what I love best about stories — the  characterization.

It was the wife’s idea — or maybe her revenge after I forced her to sit through Star Trek — to hit the State Theater on Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. She’s a huge fan of children’s media as long as it’s ripped from a book and in no way contains transforming robots, laser-wielding terrorists, cat-men with magic swords, any manifestation of ninja (mutant or otherwise), or is any way related to either DC or Marvel. Also, science fiction in her eyes is bad, whilst magic is just peachy.

She loves the singing. And the dancing. Sigh.

She must also love being too far away from the action to see any facial acting. And she must love that the actors rush through spoken lines too quickly to get to sing-song ones. She must hate dramatic pauses, establishing shots, and all the dynamism that comes with camera-work. Film editing must be anathema.

But she sure liked the disturbing narcissism and cold shoulder-ing that Poppins embraced in her live role, which if IMDB is to believed is actually much closer to how the character acted in the source material by novelist P.L. Travers. In addition, there were homoerotic living statues, a scene where toys come to life (which was cut from the Disney film), and not a dancing penguin to be seen.

But that’s just the method of delivery. Make no bones about it, I’ve always loved the film version of Poppins, and couldn’t stop whistling the catchy Sherman Brothers songs all the way home. Chim-chim-char-oo indeed! Look, I’m just a guy who likes to drink beer and play video games. Musical theater crosses a line that can sometimes be masked on film. That’s all I’m saying.

Not everything about the theater performance was unbearable. The sets were amazing works of both engineering and art, with some very clever built-in special effects that made the production just as much a magic show as a story. Sometimes the wires were visible, but other times the ingenuity of the builders had me scratching my head and wondering where the trap doors and puppet actors could possibly be hidden, or whether they were using radio controls and servos to accomplish certain effects.

Matter of fact, I spent more time wondering trying to reverse engineer the set than I did paying attention to the actors. Or the singing. And the dancing.

My mind also wandered thematically as Bert mused about the self-reflexive nature of Mary Poppins’ appearance. Cyclism is a time-honored philosophical device… the Norse had their Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, and Battlestar Galactica had its refrain of,  “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Bert suggests in both the stage and screen versions that Poppins works in much the same way, and that this story is just one of many in which she’s involved herself.

Bert’s authority on that matter has always intrigued me. There’s never an explanation for how Poppins knows Bert, or from whence comes his narrative omniscience. I posit that either A) Mary was summoned as Bert’s nanny when he was a child or B) he’s a kindred magical spirit.

I’m glad the writers left the matter ambiguous. Can you imagine the same movie written today? The producers would insist, of course, of sapping the power out of the enigma by creating a concrete backstory for who Mary is, where she comes from, where she returns to. There would be an elaborate scene showing her origin. There might even be a montage showing her popping up in conspicuous places throughout history.

Also left unabashedly unexplained is the subtle romance between Mary and Bert… which Travers allegedly hated. The story goes that she made Walt Disney promise not to slip it into the script (yet there it is, underplayed and remaining a loose string to this day).

Word is that Travers didn’t like anything about the Disney version — hating it to the point of storming out of the premier. She had script approval on the film, but Walt laughed last by clinching final draft approval and giving a firm rejection to her attempted rewrites.

She also didn’t like the singing. And the dancing.

It didn’t matter. It was Disney’s most expensive film to date, but it was also the highest-grossing of the lot from 1965 to 1985. It raked in $102.5 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards.


You know you’re old when you realize The Goonies is full of faults

July 12, 2009

gooniesFROM JASON’S DVD COLLECTION — In many ways, I am still 10 years old. Just ask my wife. I still watch Transformers cartoons. I eat cereal with marshmallows. And I’m pretty sure girls have cooties.

But never have I felt further from 10 and closer to 30 than last night while watching The Goonies. A nice little patch of gerascophobia hit when I realized that the 1985 Richard Donner flick just wasn’t that good.

It was the first time in probably 15 years that I had watched it all the way through, and the very first time for the wife. I noticed very quickly that she was not laughing. Her eyes were glossing over. She was not caring.

I was embarrassed on behalf of the movie because I’d repressed all its nasty little faults. There were Sean Astin’s awkward moments talking to the skeleton of One-Eyed Willy. There was Kerri Green’s inability to deliver a convincing line. And there’s the disgustingly Jar Jar Binks-ish character of Sloth.

Watching as an adult, I couldn’t believe how long it took to get through the exposition and into the pirate tunnels where the real adventure happens. The Goonies isn’t about the impending foreclosure of Mikey’s home — it’s supposed to be about the booby traps and treasure maps, right?

There were also the wet child actors and their constant, cacophanous yelling back and forth. When they should have been biting their tongues to avoid detection by the murderous Fratellis, they were screaming like little girls. And when by modern movie standards they should have had slick wordplay and clever turns of phrase, they delivered childish little lines.

Or they just swore with sailors’ mouths and a surprising frequency for a PG-rated movie (especially when the new PG-13 rating had been invented the previous year, in response to other Steven Spielberg films like Jaws and Temple of Doom). Characters riff on the word “shit” 19 times, and Data spells it out once more in the final sequence. In hindsight, I can’t believe my tightly-strung, religious parents let me wear out the VHS copy we had (it might have been the television version).

“That was a waste,” the wife said when the credits rolled. I prodded her for some more explanation, and she said it was “too unbelievable” that a pirate ship would be moored off the Oregon coastline for 350 years — from 1632 to 1985 — without sinking from saltwater corrosion. That might happen in fantasy books, like Harry Potter, she said, but not in the real-world setting of The Goonies.

Of course, that’s why the rest of us liked the film as children. We wanted to believe that doubloons and pitfalls and Spanish galleys were awaiting us, just a stone’s-throw from our homes if only we looked hard enough and had the help of a secret map.

Apparently, thrill-seeking fans don’t share my wife’s concerns. The chamber of commerce in Astoria, Oregon, says the film continues to draw crowds to the Goonie House at 268 38th Street (now a private residence) and the old jail from which Jake Fratelli escaped.

The chamber has even produced an audio tour, available in MP3 format, highlighting not just The Goonies landmarks, but also filming locations around town for Kindergarten Cop, Short Circuit, Free Willy, and The Ring II.

You know, people always complain about remakes of films “raping” their childhood. But I think The Goonies would be an excellent candidate for an old cult classic to get a modern sensibility with updated cinematics and some better acting. Just roll with me, here. It could be good.


Wallpaper of the Week: Futurama

June 22, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — I was going to write about how Comedy Central’s ordered 26 more episodes of Futurama to start airing sometime next year. And I was going write about how Vanity’s reporting that Fox, which canceled the show in 2003 after four seasons, still has the option for first-run rights on broadcast television.

But you already know all that, unless you’ve been incapacitated for the past week by coma, bear attack, or alien abduction, and the aliens’ Internet was broken.

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But instead I’m just going to linger for a second on what makes Futurama so damn good — it’s all about abject failure, and that’s something all of us greasy-faced nerds can relate to.

There’s not a redeemable character in the whole cast. They are stupid, conniving, fragile, egocentric, criminal, arrogant, ignorant, velour-wearing, stubborn, feeble-minded, and cowardly. They say the wrong things at the wrong time. They make big mistakes and escape the consequences only by blind luck. By all rights, every single character should be condemned for eternity to robot hell. And we love them because they are just like us.

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More importantly: Futurama is helping me lose weight. The wife has recently put me on a treadmill regimen to help me shed some of the pounds with which marriage has cursed me. To make sure I walk/jog/kind of run in a shambling way long enough, I’ve got the infernal machine set up in front of my basement TV and I exercise through an entire Futurama episode every morning. I’m already about half-way through season one.

Three pounds down, 47 to go. I wish the professor would invent a Fat-Suck-O-Scope.

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And I wish somebody would get to work inventing some decent Futurama wallpapers. I spent about three hours looking for ones that didn’t look A) like they were hand-drawn with crayon, 2) busier than Britney Spears, or ♣) like cut-and-paste jobs by a mental patient using MS Paint for the first time.

Unfortunately, the best ones I found were entirely Bender-less. Enjoy what little fare there is.


Fuller says Trek needs new classic-era characters? Try Piper and Sarda!

June 21, 2009

dreadnought01FROM JASON’S VULCAN HALF — Hey Bryan Fuller, I’ve got a pitch for a fresh Star Trek television show that could potentially be set in the J.J. Abrams movie universe.

Why don’t you try using Piper and Sarda, the Starfleet Academy cadets who took center stage in Diane Carey’s Dreadnought! and Battlestations! novels?

Fuller, who has some free time now that his Pushing Daisies has been canned by ABC, told Sci-Fi Wire a few days ago that he’d like a crack at creating a new classic-era Trek show (for CBS, which owns the rights).

“I love the aesthetics of the new movie,” he said. “I think it has to be set in that world… [and] I think we need a new ship with a new crew and an entirely new adventure that is in the timeline and the aesthetic of the movie, but it’s telling a different story.”

Carey’s cadets fit that bill perfectly.

Piper is a wannabe Kirk thrown into the middle of a conspiracy against the Federation, and Sarda is a conflicted Vulcan she has mortally offended in the past, to whom Piper turns for help in her darkest moment. The result has a tinge of romance mired in a personal enmity — a dynamic Kirk and Spock never had to struggle through.

It’s all very reminiscent of the TNG episode Below Decks, and Piper as lead has enough dimension to warrant her own space legs.

“I made her female, because if I’d made her male everyone would have said I was trying to do a young James Kirk and outshine the captain,” the author said in Voyages of Imagination, a 786-page summation of every Trek novel through 2006.

“In fact, James Kirk remained the hero of Dreadnought!, which was very important. He was one step ahead of [Piper] the whole way…. My [new] characters were young, imperfect, and clumsy, but they had heart and integrity,” Carey said.

The novel broke pretty much every Trek rule theretofore established by Pocket Books, and the editors loved it when it shot up the New York Times bestseller list. Carey followed six months later with a sequel, Battlestations!.

And then we never heard from Piper and Sarda again. That’s a shame, because the original series Star Trek universe has needed new life — new characters and perspectives — for a long time.

dreadnought02Carey’s imagination also gives us new technology that (to my knowledge) never again manifested in the Trek-iverse, but which would give a new and dangerous spin to the Abrams one. There are the Tycho class interceptor and the Arco class attack sled, which are X-Wing-ish fighter shuttles.

There’s also the titular war machine, officially Christened the Star Empire, which boasts a strange, phaser-resistant hull, unimaginable weaponry, and a holographic projection system that can fool scanners into “seeing” dozens of realistic copies of the ship.

The top-secret battlecruiser is stolen — seemingly by terrorists with connections to Piper — but the cadets (and Kirk) eventually find evidence that nothing is quite as it seems, and the real enemies could be posing as allies….

Dreadnought! would make a good two-hour pilot.

Disclaimer: Trek novels tend to settle into the young adult subcategory of science fiction a little too easily. I wish they had more substance, a grittiness more in line with, say, Battlestar Galactica than The Phantom Menace. Dreadnought! is the only Trek book I still own; that’s a testament to its ingenuity. And my reluctant nerdiness.