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.


World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

May 2, 2009

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worldwarzFROM JASON’S BOOK SHELF — I might have picked the exact wrong time to read World War Z, Max Brooks’ geek-celebrated “oral history of the zombie war.”

I was raised in a deeply superstitious household that embraced Christian mysticism. One of the most basic tenets of Christian mythology is that resurrection from the dead is actually possible.

I’ve since shrugged off the shackles of that thinking in exchange for atheism. But no matter how much intellectual growth you experience, childhood religious indoctrination leaves behind a tiny, immutable nag in the mind that panics at the sight of religious iconography.

So you can’t help but jump and shiver and glance over your shoulder when dealing with tales of the undead. America being so thoroughly saturated by Christianity (76 percent of citizens self-identify as adherents), maybe that explains why we hold such a fascination with works of horror and supernatural thrillers.

I was reading Brooks’ novel with that baggage already weighing me down, and then reports of the swine flu hit the airwaves.

Now, it’s important to understand that one of the reasons that World War Z works is that it shows how real people would react to news that a mysterious epidemic is spreading. It portrays complacent characters who don’t react until too late; folks who discount media reports and underestimate the danger of the zombie plague. They disbelieve accounts of the living dead. They look for a rational explanation under the seeming supernatural tide.

And it all started off small, with reports of a mysterious, unstoppable disease spreading across borders. You can see why “swine flu” had my Spidey Sense tingling.

Compounding my Brooks-induced paranoia is an RSS toy built by our fellow Front Row Crew forum friend, Sonic. The gadget, called A.Z.O.N.S., or Automated Zombie Outbreak Notification System, is a gag based on the ol’ nerd joke about the “pending zombie apocalypse.”

I mean, any geek worth his salt has thought about what they would do if suddenly dropped in a nightmare world out of the mind of George Romero, right?azons A.Z.O.N.S. scours Web news sites for a list of terms related to said apocalypse. It analyzes them and reports “threats” to your RSS reader — in my case, to a widget on my iGoogle page.

Some of the key words it hits on are “strange disease,” “unknown disease,” and other medical terms. Guess what has its alarm klaxons sounding these days, right as I finish up World War Z?

I’m not honestly suggesting that I believe swine flu has anything to do with zombies. But when a work of fiction interlaces just so with real-world meta events, it can be enough to make your skin crawl. I did a literary double-take before I could settle down and remind myself that it’s just a book.

zombiehippyThat’s the beauty of Brooks’ writing. He makes the undead uprising seem so plausible. Sure, his zombies are the shambling, moaning ones. They aren’t the rampaging, quick-footed plaque zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (which I really liked).

But that doesn’t make them cartoon-ish Scooby Doo apparitions, either. They aren’t for instance, the lovable reanimated clowns of ExtraLife artist Scott Johnson’s 56 Zombies Project.

They are terrifying and unstoppable demons. They are the traditional horde zombies that sweep down and close in, never stopping, never giving quarter. They are not afraid. When one falls, another takes its place. And every human they kill joins their cause.

Oddly enough — and here is where I was happiest with World War Z — the zombies aren’t the most intriguing part of Brooks’ work. They provide an excellent backdrop, but they aren’t the soul of the book. Like the very best plot devices, they are merely there to facilitate character stories.

In this case, the zombies are just the grind stone used to wear down the humans. The real genius of the novel is how deep a psychological toll is taken on the survivors of the war: They suffer everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to self-delusion, cannibalism, multiple personality disorder, and stunted cognitive progression.

Some, called “quislings” in the book, are so badly damaged that they are knocked into a dissociative state where they actually think they are zombies though they remain uninfected. A suicide pandemic strikes other survivors, while others are so hope-lorn that their minds shut down. They simply go to sleep and never wake up.

This is my fear for the big-screen adaptation helmed by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball): That it will be an action film and not a story of the human spirit’s breaking point. Perhaps Forster’s track record with thinking-man flicks is why he was chosen to spearhead the 2010 project. I can certainly hope that he finds the right angle instead of just cutting and running with another living dead gore-fest.


Midnight showing: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

April 25, 2009

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FROM JASON’S INDIE THEATER — There are very few movies my wife has the patience to sit through, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is her favorite.

The bright colors, the singing, and her obsession with all things Roald Dahl are enough to overcome the mild ADD that has her wiggling out of her seat during the movies I like. So she was like — and forgive me here — a kid in a candy store last night when the local $3 theater gave a midnight showing of the 1971 “children’s” movie.

The place was packed with the gangly and socially awkward denizens of the nearby Oberlin College, which made the experience fun. Dorm life being what it is, they were keyed in to every drug reference and sexual subtext thrown up on the screen. They sang along at all the right parts. How could we not join in?

They went bananas at all manner of phallic symbols — from the pumping pistons of the Everlasting Gobstopper machine to the ejaculatory tubas in the “car wash” scene (especially when Mrs. Teevee was shot in the face with a big wad of… “bubbles”).

There were huge laughs when Bill said, “You were born to be a Wonka-er,” because it ostensibly sounded similar to “wanker.” Everybody started rolling when 13-year-old Charlie insisted on buyinghis grandfather tobacco.

One loud-mouthed frosh in the front row bellowed, “WRONG!” when Mrs. Teevee identified Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” as Rachmaninoff. But for such a literate crowd, they sure were scratching their heads at the Oscar Wilde or Ogden Nash quotes. One girl didn’t get the Shakespearean origins of, “Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head,” and shouted, “What the hell?!”

And we were all a little uncomfortable together in the dark theater when watching how the on-screen adults acted toward the children. The threat of child molestation has profoundly changed the acceptable ways to touch kids in the past 30 years. When Slugworth (aka Wilkinson) would grab a child from behind and start whispering in his or her ear, it took an insidious tone. And even some comments by Willy seemed wildly unacceptable and inuendo-filled.  It’s easy to see why Johnny Depp took the Michael Jackson interpretation in the 2005 remake.

Next Saturday, the same theater is screening Labyrinth at midnight, with several more as-yet-unnamed cult classics to follow through the summer.

I’m eager to see whether the college kids will arrive at the same conclusions as The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast host Paul Chapman about the film — whether it’s all about a young girl’s escapist repression of childhood sexual abuse.

Won’t that be enlightening?

I’m glad for experiences like these. I mean, I have a 42-inch flatscreen plasma TV at home, so there’s nothing really pressing anymore about going out to the movies… that is, unless they offer something I can’t get at home. At least one cinema owner is trying to foster an actual movie-going experience instead of just collecting an outrageous sum to slap people in cramped seats.

The management didn’t get pissy at the kids for being boistrous. Nobody was upset at the singing, or yelling for anyone to be quiet. It was a communal experience, a kind of group enjoyment typically only available at a ball park. And it’s why I’ll be going back to the Apollo Theatre.

So if you made it this far, here’s a reward:


Literary feedback loop: Same ol’ books, same ol’ movies

March 2, 2009

godfatherFROM JASON’S REDUNDANT HOME LIBRARY — Well, it happened again. I grabbed my battered, old copy of The Godfather on the way to the bathroom a couple of days ago, and before I knew it two hours had passed and I was 120 pages in.

It started when I caught a much-edited showing the Coppola’s film on Bravo — it’s one of those films that is a must-watch if I stumble across it while flipping channels. But the Bravo version didn’t end the right way, with Kay (nee Adams) Corleone praying for Michael’s soul.

The more I saw, the more scenes I missed… either those that were edited, or those that never made the script. It’s perhaps my favorite movie of all time (I waffle between The Godfather and Goodfellas, which is strange because I don’t really care so much about mafia as a subject, just the conspiracy of it all).

But there’s none of Vito Corleone’s rise to power in Coppola’s film. You don’t meet Genco Abandando. Almost all of Johnny Fontaine’s story has been excised (which was supposedly all about Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra hated author Mario Puzo for it). Aside from the first scene, there’s nothing more about Lucy Mancini. You don’t get a whole lot about the wooing and turning of ex-cop Albert Neri.

I love those character studies. They are not the focus of the story. They are not the brain of the story. But they are its heart — all the people Vito has pledged to protect and provide for.

My reading binge didn’t stop there. The Godfather was just the ignition point for a terrible habit. I go through re-reads like fire goes through gasoline. I find myself, year after year, returning to the same cache of old hard-bound friends: The Three Musketeers. Breakfast of Champions. The World According to Garp. Dune, The Belgariad, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 2010, Ender’s Game, Robin Hood.

They are familiar. I worry this habit is just childish, escapist regression. I justify it as stress relief, as returning to familiar works that deserve time and attention on a second or third or forty-third reading.

It’s happening with movies, too. I went through a particular rough patch in my life a few months ago, and ended up watching Fight Club every other night or so for two weeks, just because it was looping on G4 and my emotional malaise turned into apathy.

I rarely hit the video rentals these days (though I just finished watching Oliver Stone’s W.). Instead, I opt to watch the animated 1984 Transformers movie endlessly, or to rehash Lucky Number Slevin for the 20th time, or pop in a random Arrested Development disc.

I’m a little paranoid about the habit, I think, because I’m nearing 30 and starting to wonder whether my choices reflect an overall mental slowdown. I find it less and less appealing to pick up an all-new title with its unknown depths. It’s so much more comfortable to go back to those novels to which you already know the ending as soon as you read page one.

Is this a sign that I’ve reached my mental peak? If I am more and more hesitant to absorb new knowledge, new stories, does that mean my cognitive growth is stagnant? Is that the point where I can consider myself old?

And here I thought the middle age crisis was a psychological myth.

By the way, have you heard of Goodreads.com? It’s a list-keeping service that helps track all the titles you’ve ever read, organizing them into databases that can then be cross-references to find new books you might enjoy. You can share and compare your lists with your friends.

Some of mine include:goodreadsI had been wanting to sit and draw out just such a list for a few years, trying to see just what scope and breadth of literature I’ve read. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, and will continue to flesh out my account as I remember and/or visit the library.


Read This: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

January 11, 2009
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FROM JASON’S OVERFLOWING BOOKCASE — If you survived a low-level college literature course, or ever read Watchmen, then you’ve probably at least heard of Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.

The short verse — written 191 years ago today — describes a broken statue of Ramesses the Great, ruler of Egypt, and the desolate desert it inhabits. Shelley’s theme is that the pharaoh’s empire and all the work of his 66-year reign are now turned to dust. In the wind.

A month after Shelley’s poem was published in 1818, his friend Horace Smith published a competing poem of the same name and subject. The second half of his work wonders whether centuries from now, the “modern” civilization will appear just as anciently alien to our descendants as Ramesses’ appears to us.

“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

I bring this up because I just finished re-reading John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, science fiction novels written between 1967 and 1968 for young readers. I first encountered these books about age nine, and my wife was clever enough to hunt them down as stocking-stuffers this Christmas. I was very happy with her.

Like much sci-fi and fantasy novels of the 20th century, Christopher’s are re-skinnings of the old Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth. The young male protagonist, Will, is discontent with the tripods, huge War of the Worlds-inspired machines who rule over a post-apocalyptic Earth, and must journey the path of “the Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

The set-up: the tripods graft mind-controlling mesh “caps” onto the heads of humans at age 14. The caps keep people complacent and incurious, causing society to revert to pre-industrial agrarianism. There are no more large cities. There are no more machines. There is no more war, but neither is there invention or exploration.

At the start of the first book in the series, The White Mountains, a vagrant named Ozymandias approaches Will and tells him freedom fighters still exist who fight the tripods. They live in the Swiss Alps; following Campbell’s formula, Ozymandias charges Will to leave his tiny English village and quest across France to find the last human stronghold.

Like the hunter of Smith’s poem, Will and his incidental traveling companions come across the ruins of a 20th century city — not London, but Paris, destroyed 100 years past. They are amazed by horseless carriages, a subway system, and wrist watches that seem like magic to their limited technological understanding.

These books have a real My Side of the Mountain vibe, in that they focus on pre-teenage boys who choose to live apart from establishment and provide for themselves. (I’m sure I will end up writing someday about how much I love that book.) Along the way, Will and his friends are forced to contemplate the value of humanism and self-determinism. They have to decide whether it’s better to embrace their own manifest destiny with its inevitable pitfalls and pain, or to have the tripods decide humanity’s destiny in exchange for peace and security.

And you know what ol’ Benjamin Franklin said about that: “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” It’s funny how science fiction tends to be progressive along those lines, instead of regressive like religion.

That gave me a lot to chew on at all of nine years old. And there’s no shame in reading these books as an adult, either. If you like them, there is also a prequel titled When the Tripods Came, which explores how the tripods used subliminal messages to spark the initial takeover of Earth. It was written 20 years after the launch of the series; I recommend reading them in the order in which they were published.


Five more films that get no love

December 10, 2008

FROM JASON’S BARGAIN DVD BIN — I let loose a little back in June about five movies that are completely underrated, and I’ve been thinking about a few more. They’re not Goodfellas or Shawshank, but they’re fine films that just don’t get the respect and attention they deserve.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story — I’m a sucker for biopics, and after watching this 1993 tale seven times I can comfortably say it’s deserving of some praise. Jason Scott Lee is great as the charismatic Hong Kong martial artist who is more or less responsible for breaking a cultural taboo and teaching kung fu in the US. He falls in love with a young American girl played by Jim Carrey’s ex-wife, Lauren Holly (rawr), gets a spot as Kato on The Green Hornet, gets ditched from the lead in Kung Fu, and returns to Hong Kong to make his now-classic films.

The only problem I have with Dragon is that its writers resort to mysticism. They revel in it. Lee’s death is foreshadowed as a demonic manifestation intent on hunting him down in dream sequences. The movie almost comes out and says this Chinese demon is some sort of magical religious punishment for the way he lived.

The Thomas Crown Affair — John McTiernan’s 1999 remake makes a hero of a very clever villain. Pierce Brosnan’s title character masterminds art heists that are — as you discover int he final reel — so much more. This is an intelligent over oversexed cops-and-robbers-and-bounty-hunters story that absolutely makes you want to buy a boller hat, or at least some high-class knock-off art.

The jazzy soundtrack comes courtesy of Sting, Nina Simone, and Bill Conti (think Rocky‘s “Gonna Fly Now”). The art is Monet, Pissarro, and Magritte. But the best acting of the flick, surprisingly, isn’t the work of Brosnan or Rene Russo; see Crown for Denis Leary’s loveable loser cop.

Sneakers — Four years before the remake of Mission Impossible, Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson took his own shot at the team-of-spies genre. How’s this for a cast: Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, and Dan Aykroyd?

This adventure-buddy-comedy is laced with all the early 90s “hacker” tripe, as Redford’s team of super-smart con artists help corporations discover and fix their electronic security problems. A hunt for a code-breaking “black box” lands the gang in trouble with the NSA, CIA, and dirty, dirty Russians, and that’s where the fun begins.

Maverick — Once upon a time in the old west, there was an actor who really had chops and totally didn’t come off as hating Jews. He made a bunch of really great films, including Maverick, and then went certifiably insane/drunk/racist.

His name was Mel Gibson. Everybody loved him, and I loved all his movies. Things have changed a lot since 1994.

Richard Donner managed to clothe this old TV remake in equal parts Gunsmoke, Blazing Saddles, and The Sting. Still, with Jodie Foster, James Garner, Graham Greene, and Alfred Molina chipping in, this wildly wacky western comes off fresh and is filled with fake-outs and twists.

Meet Joe Black — Facing his 65th birthday, a strange whispering voice in his head, and his own mortality, Anthony Hopkins spends his last days on Earth hosting an unlikely and barely corporeal visitor.

Based on “Death Takes a Holiday,” this film puts the anthropomorphized soul of death itself into the body of Brad Pitt. Death, you see, wants to walk among men a while and see what life is all about. He chooses Hopkins’ successful business mogul to show him around, and incidentally falls in love along the way with Hopkins’ daughter (Claire Forlani — who wouldn’t).

This movie is long. It is slow. It is wonderfully, perfectly plodding. You could say it marches at the pace of death. And I love it. I love the use of light, the utter luxury we’re shown, the complicated but honest characters, the love story. I love how at one point Pitt is playing Death playing a human masquerading as another person. That’s acting as someone acting as someone else — and it all comes through expertly. There’s a reason he gets the big bucks (and Angelina Jolie).

If you don’t cry at the end of this film, we can’t be friends. And if you don’t laugh at it’s one blackly (get it?) comedic moment, then you are dead to me.