Review: Where the Wild Things Are

October 18, 2009

wild

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.

Advertisements

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.


The flashy new Star Trek was worth exactly $32.75

May 9, 2009

trek04

***HEREIN BE SPOILERS***

FROM JASON’S COMMUNICATOR — The leaks all said there would be time travel in J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film. I should have been smart enough to bring a pad of paper to diagram for my wife the black hole-induced plot.

“How can there be two Spocks?” she whispered a good two thirds into the film. I arched a single eyebrow and tried to get her to remember the basic mechanics of Back to the Future II.

That was a mistake. Her eyes went glassy. She is not a science fiction buff. She hates all things Trek, but was classy enough to tag along with me this time and indulge my spaceships and green aliens fetish.

Oh well. At least the pretty cast, a brief sex scene featuring the aforementioned Orion sexpot, and a certain hunky captain were enough to keep my lady’s eyes on the screen. “Who is that guy? The main guy?” the wife asked at one point. “Chris Pine? I’ll bet he’s got a big pine… in his pants,” she snickered. But I  noticed she was watching more than just James T. Kirk. Try as she might to hide it, and this is important, she was actually watching the film.

That’s all I could ask for — enough gloss to keep a noob interested while my inner geek whooped and jumped up and down like a first-grader at recess. And Abrams delivered, making the most accessible Trek flick of the franchise (rivaled only, in my opinion, by First Contact).

That’s great, because I certainly paid for it. We shelled out $19 to get the digital version, which looked and sounded magnificent, and then another $13.75 for two boxes of candy and a single frozen Coke.

In exchange for that huge hunk o’ cash, I got a Red Shirt death, the return of Leonard Nimoy, and an introduction to characters that didn’t devolve into Starfleet High School: 90210 Edition.

trek05

There was also a surprising amount of Star Wars tossed into the mix — and I mean the good ol’ A New Hope, not the George Lucas-needs-a-new-yacht variety. My spidey sense went off when an impressionable Kirk zoomed across the Iowa farmscape on his motorcycle looking an awful lot like Luke Skywalker putt-putting past Tatooine moisture farms in his landspeeder. But there were other subtle references packed in as well, such as brief glimpses of exotic aliens in background shots that evoked the Mos Eisley cantina scene.

Chris Pine wasn’t nearly as wet-behind-the-ears as Mark Hamill, though. He managed to put just the right amount of immaturity into Kirk’s typical smarm and meritocratic leadership. There was a smidgen of reckless self-assurance and just the right amount of sex hound (he uttered, “Hey ladies,” just about every time a warm body walked by).

He also managed to throw in a couple of sentences in William Shatner’s trademark stutter-stopping bravado during the Kobayashi Maru sequence toward the film’s start. The timing was so underplayed that it almost slipped my radar. Or sensors. Or whatever.

Pine wasn’t even the best actor of the new brood, though. Zachary Quinto oozed Spock, managing to put a surprising degree of emotion into the logical Vulcan. For that matter, 14-year-old Jacob Kogan gets huge props for playing Spock as a child without the slightest hint of Jake Lloyd blandness.

trek02

Of the entire crew, however, I was most impressed with Karl Urban as Bones. He felt the most relaxed, and his cranky color did the most to put me in mind of the cheesy old space opera. But while his performance was flawless, there was none of the McCoy-Spock interplay, the bickering, the affection-padded insults that made their relationship so much fun in the 1960s series. I missed that, and hopefully the two planned sequels will explore that side of their friendship.

In its place, Abrams and company wrote in a surprise romance, and I very much approve of the Uhura-Spock coupling. You heard that right. Spock and Uhura making out.

The predictable model for the film would have been to allow Kirk to woo and win the at-first unwilling Nyota. But not so here. Spock gets the girl. He gets her good. And the writers chose to skip over the beginning of their fling and jump straight into the midst of a mature, nurturing relationship.

Meanwhile, Chekov and Sulu got exactly the right amount of screen time due them, which screams to me that someone who loves the old series knows how those two fit into the picture. They are the R2-D2 and C3-P0 of the franchise. But tragically ignored was Simon Pegg as Scotty, who got just about zero exposure and seemed to be needed only to get Kirk from point A to point B through some clever teleporter tricks.

trek03

Where Trek gets really skimpy is in the villain department. Nero (Eric Bana) isn’t a particularly compelling, sympathetic, or even really substantive antagonist. He’s not a Khan. He’s no genius, or a clever tactician, or a conqueror. He’s just a mining ship captain with a broken heart, veins filled with hate, and a 129-year technological head start.

Nero”s really just there to be a Prime Mover. I guess that’s okay, because it’s not his story. I guess you could say he’s just the tattoo-faced foe who fires up the platonic Kirk-Spock love story.

Next to that, everything else is incidental. I mean, other than extinguishing Nero as a threat, nothing is truly fixed in the end.The tragedy that destroyed Romulus is not reversed through some miracle of temporal engineering, and neither is the destruction of Vulcan. Two of the holy grails of the franchise are simply obliterated, their handfuls of survivors scattered to the stars.

I actually really liked that. Billions of people died and Kirk didn’t slingshot around the sun in a Klingon Bird of Prey to gallop across time and set it right. It’s permanent collateral damage, and it set Abram’s work apart by diverging hugely from traditional Trek cannon.

I guess what I’m driving at here is that if you don’t think you like Star Trek, you should still watch this movie. It’s not The Love Boat in space anymore; neither is it barrel-chested Shatner fighting a man in a gorilla suit with the zipper showing and a fake unicorn horn planted on the forehead.

Really, I promise you, there’s very little nerd stink on this one.

If nothing else, just watch it for Zoe Saldana, who is incredibly hot:

trek01


Wallpaper of the Week: G.I. Joe

April 24, 2009

joe01

FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — I’m not sure how I feel yet about the upcoming live-action G.I. Joe movie, The Rise of Cobra. But if it is anything like the recently-launched G.I. Joe: Resolute on Adult Swim, then it at least has a fighting chance.

And that’s half the battle. The other half, as you can imagine, is knowing.

I was grinning madly and hopping up and down in my chair watching the Resolute webisodes the other night. This ‘toon is serious. People die. They get shot in the head at close range. There’s blood. A familiar Joe is assassinated, and 10.4 million Russians are murdered in a single thrust by Cobra.

joe04

There are no Viper pilots parachuting to safety at the last second. And Snake Eyes… let’s just say Snake Eyes is badass, even with a trench knife through his palm.

Like anyone born in 1980 or thereabouts, I watched the old cartoons and played with the toys until the legs and thumbs were broken. Lots of days were spent building sandbox Joe forts and waging complicated campaigns, so there’s a powerful nostalgic connection.

One thing I’ve always found interesting with any 1980s cartoon franchise is how much more compelling the villains are than the heroes. I mean, who else found themselves silently rooting time and again for Destro and the Baroness to finally hatch a winning scheme, or for Cobra Commander to grow a pair (boy, does he ever in Resolute!)?

joe02

I think much of that feeling is wrapped up in character design. While Cobra agents are slick and powerful and domineering almost to the point of being alien or robot, the Joes are near-uniformly tall, strapping lads and lasses, clean-cut and boistrous in all-American gear. They’re practically quarterbacks and homecoming queens in red, white, and blue-speckled military garb.

Which gives birth to a realization, watching one or two episodes recently as an adult: The series was incredibly jingoistic, to the point of being an overt recruiting tool for the armed forces. It’s probably just as responsible for today’s rash of “rah rah sis boom bah” patriotism as any Reagan speech.

joe03

The ‘toon might as well have been intercut with Starship Troopers-level nationalist propaganda. They’re doing their part. Are you? Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world!

I can’t imagine that the new movie will have that same slant. After all, this is war-weary America, and Hasbro and Paramount surely are smart enough to understand that cheerleader patriotism doesn’t really jive with post-Korea, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq viewers. Right?

At any rate, just given the leather outfit and sexy glasses, I’m already backing Sienna Miller’s Baroness.

That aside, enjoy these older-school Joe wallpapers. More can be found, strangely enough, at Skywarp’s Hardy Boys Casefiles Encyclopedia. There’s a mash-up for you.


Wallpapers of the Week: Ralph McQuarrie ‘Star Wars’ concept art

January 30, 2009

145773

FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — My father took me when I was four to see Return of the Jedi at the drive-in. It was the first film I ever saw on the big screen; from that moment on, I was a Star Wars acolyte.

No joke. I would line up my stuffed animals on my bed and they would help me pilot the Millenium Falcon through the Death Star’s infrastructure. In my mind, epic battles were waged against storm trooper legions. A long, cardboard giftwrap tupe became my lightsaber.

145754

Those imaginary campaigns stopped long ago, but my fascination with Star Wars backstory and its greater universe never faded. When I was about 11, I discovered a large picture book filled with artistic renderings that looked almost — but not quite — like Star Wars. There were hairy monsters that looked almost like Wookies, and a hulking figure in black that looked more like a robot ninja than Darth Vader.

These were the drawings of Ralph McQuarrie, commissioned to envision the worlds and characters and atmosphere from Geoge Lucas’ mind before they could be transported to film.

There’s something incredibly attractive about that process, watching idealized pulp imaginings change as prop, costume, and set designers wrestle to make them solid and practicable.

145779

So I was very excited the other day when I came on a cache of these McQuarrie pieces in a larger format. I quickly resized them, tinkered with the contrast and brightness ratios to offset some fading and dullness, and ran them through a quick crosshatch filter to make the lines a little bolder and modern.

The results make, I think, for some great desktop wallpapers for Star Wars geeks like me. Enjoy. Click any of the images for a 1024×768 version.

145760


Indiana Jones: The Glimpse of Hope that Disappoints. Now with 100% more spoilers!

May 28, 2008

ADVENTURING FROM ANDREWS DISBELIEF — I had high hopes for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I made a mistake: I forgot to take some sort of prescription medication before I went to the movie theatre.

The new movie, the fourth in the adventures of Dr. Jones, completely junks the historical grounding of the original films and takes a step toward paranoid conspiracy. There are aliens. Seriously.

Not only that, but the aliens were crystal skeletons who had a space ship under the Mayan ruins — a fully functional space ship at that. To make matters worse, George Lucas had to involve Area 51 in the damned story.

All in all, I just find the way they approached the subject matter lacked the taste or tact that made the first three films great. It was a shotgun blast to the face and I despised every minute of it.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is nominally about Indy on another archaeological adventure. But as we find out in the first ten or so minutes of the film, the movie is deeply flawed and nowhere near the classic greatness of Raiders or Last Crusade. The film begins the very first shot with a close up of a horrendously animated CG gopher. The very first thought the popped into my head was “Oh, fuck.” Unfortunately, it all goes down hill from there.

What appealed to me about the original Indiana Jones films was deep historical backgrounds that the plots were grounded in. Sure, some of the plot elements were a little supernatural (Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, removal of a beating heart out of a man’s chest), but they were done tastefully, in my opinion. However, even deeper was the historical context of the plot. These stories have persisted for centuries and have captured the imaginations of the human race. They are, in the most literal sense, the myths which are the foundation of our culture.

It wasn’t all horrible though, there were definitely some relative high points to the film. The action sequences were well-choreographed and the CG effects were certainly top-notch. The CG was still noticeable, probably to the dismay of Spielberg. There was also that witty Jones dialog as well. One scene in the library stood our particularly well in that regard. I feel like the acting could probably have been better but I’m going to chalk that one up to sub-par writing that was too dependent upon the already mentioned Jones-isms and a loss of focus on plot and character development.

Overall, I would probably say that this is a decent action flick but not worthy of the reputable name it carries. Most of the time I felt that I was watching yet another sequel to The Mummy with only a few of the traits that made the original Indy flicks great shimmering through. I would probably recommend that you rent/Netflix this film. If you decide to see it in theatres, make sure you don’t go in with your hopes up.


‘Of Gods and Men’ Act 3 release date set

May 23, 2008

FROM JASON’S INBOX — The third and final act of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men will be released Saturday, June15, at 5:01 p.m., the movie’s creators announced today.

We’ve already reviewed acts one and two — and in case you missed it, Visual Effects Producer Peter Christian took notice. He wrote:

“Believe it or not, I loved your review. It was the first one I have read that gave more praise to my FX teams hard work than praise to the actors and writers. All others reviews have been quite the opposite.

As far as your predictions are concerned (even your biggie for Act II, not all is as it seems) you are in for a very big surprise in Act III. Nice call about Garan, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. ;)

Thanks for the great review, my team loved it!”

This time around, we’ll get three new characters played by:

  • Daamen J. Krall, who did voices in the Starfleet Command III and Starfleet Academy video games.
  • Herbert Jefferson Jr., for whom I can find no Trek connection other than a one-episode stint with The Shatner on T.J. Hooker (but he was Lt. Boomer on the old incarnations of Battlestar Galactica)
  • Grace Lee Whitney, best known as Yeoman Janice Rand on Star Trek: TOS. She also played a communications officer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The producers are also promising cameos by:

  • Arlene Martel, who played the Vulcan T’Ping (Spock’s prospective wife) in Amok Time (TOS).
  • Jack Donner, who played Romulan Subcommander Tal in The Enterprise Incident (TOS).
  • Tania Lemani, who played the exotic dancer Kara in the did-Scotty-committ-murder mind-bender Wolf In the Fold (TOS).
  • Celeste Yarnall, who played Pavel’s red-shirt romantic interest Martha Landon in The Apple (TOS)

As for plot, we’re promised a battle between the alternate timeline rebels and Galactic Order.