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

Død Snø: Shawn of the Dead meets the Third Reich?

April 18, 2009

dodsno01FROM JASON’S DVD PLAYER — I now know two words in Norwegian. Død means “dead,” while Snø translates easily enough to “snow.”

I doubt I’ll ever have use for the phrase, except when I go hunting at Blockbuster this summer for the Norwegian-indie-Nazi-zombie-horror-comedy flick Død Snø, set for release June 12 in the States.

Seemingly taking queues from Shawn of the Dead’s simultaneous genre-revitalizing and self-mocking humor, the Scandinavian undead epic pits reanimated fascists against vacationing teens who stumble on a cache of stolen Nazi gold.

The pillaged treasure was hidden during the Reich’s occupation of Norway during World War II, and a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque cursed horde rises to claim it back when the protagonists find it in a desolate mountain cabin.

Seriously, this is a geek orgasm. I can’t wait to see it.

I’m not normally a fan of zombies flicks, though several works in recent years have worked to change that (the aforementioned Simon Pegg film and Left 4 Dead among them). I’ve never been a fan of gore for gore’s sake; but if a work can be more about creativity and subtle fun-poking at genre cliches instead of blood and intestines, then I’m all in.

I also don’t really give a hoot about another Romero allegorical commentary about American consumerism.

Dead Snow sounds like it’s going to be more horror than comedy, but with consistent piss-taking — I’m just not sure whether they buzz around the movie is due to intentional or unintentional humor. Norwegians are smart. They can’t possibly think they can get away with stock baddies like Nazis rising from the icy grave, for shit’s sake.

One thing is sure: I like Scandinavians. They seem so laid back. I’ve never heard of anyone being prejudiced against them. The northern ladies are hot (I’d like to bjork de bjork de bjork them like the Swedish Chef). And somehow they seem to be at once at the leading edge of fashion while still wearing Thor hair and knit sweaters.

The film was released in Norway on my birthday in January, and was shown at Sundance before IFC purchased North American distribution rights. IFC is the same indie party behind Y Tu Mamá También, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fahrenheit 9/11, and the controversial Transamerica.

Unfortunately, kids, you won’t be able to slap Dead Snow on your Netflix queue this summer because IFC has an exclusive distribution deal with Blockbuster — though I give even odds that Blockbuster will be belly-up in the next year.

Regardless, Død Snø is already getting decent ratings from folks in-the-know, scoring 7.0 on IMDB. That’s better than Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Young Guns, Heavy Metal, Hot Shots!, Ghostbusters 2, or Talladega Nights.

There are some weird demographic splits in the mix, too. Usually, zombie and other horror flicks are the demesne of the male geeks, but tracking for Dead Snow is actually better among females. What’s more, it’s getting an average IMDB rating of 9.5 from women 45 and older, while men in the same age group only give it an average 6.2.

And that’s got me wondering.

I’ve only got one beef so far with the movie: the tagline. It’s “Ein! Zwei! Die!” That’s fine, I suppose, but if you’re a Nazi German, then you think they’re saying, “One! Two! The!”

Oh, and by the way, I know that pesky Ø symbol has been nagging at you the entire time you’ve been reading this. Here’s the wiki entry so you can stop obsessing.


Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic is all about a confused man-child with daddy issues

March 3, 2009

FROM JASON’S RENTAL CARD — Just because you’re simple doesn’t mean you’re uncomplicated.

That’s how I felt about George W. Bush — or at least his silver screen caricature — after watching Oliver Stone’s W. Sunday night. That, and surprisingly a small amount of pity for a man whose policies I’ve despised and whose actions I’ve cursed.

I told Andrew after watching the film that it’s too apologetic, too humanizing of the 43rd president. It gives ol’ W. a bit of leniency by showing his Oedipal angst and constant quest to find self-worth despite his skin-deep Texas swagger. Stone pushes the younger Bush as a man-child desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to come to terms with his lack of career acuity, and it feels like a back-handed sympathy party.

From his failure to make it as a blue collar salary man, to his drunken Harvard fraternity nights, and then his coat-tails ride into the political arena, Josh Brolin as Bush seems more a confused teenager in an adult body than the evil corporate oilman his opponents have labeled him.

brolin-bushAnd trust me, the guy from The Goonies (Brolin) is good. The face is Brolin’s, but the trademark derisive snicker is Bush’s, as is the Lonestar State strut and the halting delivery of contorted Bushisms lifted straight out of the newsreels. He infuses W. with a mannish petulance, showing Bush trying desperately to maintain a pretense of control as his decisions constantly kick him in the groin.

It’s the facial expressions, really, that clinch the performance. Brolin gives the recognizable Bush squint while mulling the really tough ideas, radiating the idea that if he can only knit his brow a little tighter then he might be able to pierce the veil of information around him and find out what is really going on, and why his policies are having such disastrous consequences.

Brolin and Stone also dally a bit, much to my delight, on the right-wing religious angle, making a fairly acute statement on the pandering of Bible Belt politicians.

“Nobody’s ever going to out-Texas or out-Christian me again,” Brolin-as-Bush says after losing his early Congressional bid. He spends the rest of the film pausing frequently for showy prayer breaks and even telling his preacher that God is speaking to him audibly.

My stance on such things: Hearing imaginary friends talking to you is a sign of paranoid delusional schizophrenia.

Bush is in the reticule with this one, but Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer Dick Chaney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a manipulative, power-hungry warhawk; to simultaneously golf clap and give a shame-on-you to Colin Powell for his role as a Bush enabler; to jab at Karl Rove’s smug calculative nature; to borderline impune Donald Rumsfeld as certifiably insane; and to cast Elizabeth Banks as an (unrealistically) sexy version of Laura Bush.

I don’t know exactly why W. scored just a 59 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’d be willing to guess it has to do with the political charge of the film; it scores slightly higher with a 6.9/10 rating on IMDB.

Personally, I’d recommend it slightly higher than either of those metrics, but with the admonition that it’s not going to spur much demand for repeat viewing. I definitely wouldn’t buy W., especially considering how it will be dated as we put the Bush presidencies behind for good.

It will be interesting to see in eight years whether Barack Obama will require Stone to rev up the camera for a similar treatment.