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

Wallpaper of the Week: Wolverine vs. Hulk

October 8, 2009

WolverineVsHulk01

FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Well, that was a nice break.

I didn’t mean to take off the entire month of September. Sorry ’bout that. It’s not my fault — the siren lure of Netflix  is entirely to blame. I joined up in late July and, well, you’ve seen the posts slip.

There was also a slight obsession with Team Fortress 2. Expect another absence in November when Left 4 Dead 2 drops.

Netflix, though, has allowed me to catch up on a backlog of movies that I had wanted to see. Because I have been working nights, getting to the video rental store wasn’t an option. With streaming movies and delivery to my mailbox, that’s no longer a problem.

A few weeks ago, the mail brought me Hulk Vs., a double-feature released in January by Marvel. One flick shows Wolverine taking on Hulk while his old Department K enemies interfere. The other story on the disc has Loki possessing the Hulk in a plot to overthrow Asgard during the Odinsleep.

WolverineVsHulk03

The animation of neither is stellar; however, the action is something of a fanboy wet dream. The Wolverine tale is a throwback to the characters’ first run-in back in 1974 and features Lady Deathstrike, Deadpool (whose dialog was spot-on), Sabretooth, and Omega Red. Thor’s story is full of rainbows (oh, I hate the Asgard designs), and features the Enchantress, Sif, and even a trip to the underworld to visit Hela.

I was surprised to see a 7.1 rating for Hulk Vs. on IMDB. Personally, it was a guilty pleasure — a callback to my infantile love for the old Hulk television show. I would have rated the double-feature at about five out of 10. Maybe the Marvel fanboys have skewed the data. But I’d say that if you enjoyed some other direct-to-video comic adapatations (Ultimate Avengers, The Invincible Iron Man, Dr. Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme), then you’ll probably get a kick out of this one, too.

WolverineVsHulk02

Now, it took me a while to find some decent Hulk vs. Wolverine wallpapers, so enjoy these ones, aight? As always, click the thumbnail to enbiggen.

Part of the problem getting higher-quality desktops involved the demise of a certain chan aggregator — you might remember I was a fan — called 4scrape (RIP). Since it went belly-up, some brilliant netizens have delved into the source code and compiled their own 4scrape clones. The one I’ve latched onto is 4walled, which does the job pretty well despite some load time and formatting issues.


No exaggeration — Transmorphers is movie diarrhea

August 5, 2009

morph01

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.

morph03

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.

morph02

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.


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.


‘Up’ is a beautiful downer you should see

May 29, 2009

upanim

FROM JASON’S $3 CINEMA — He is not cut like Brad Pitt. He is not slick like James Bond. He is not cunning like Jason Bourne. He is not overbrimming with bravado like Indiana Jones.

No, the hero of Pixar’s stunning Up is world-weary and melancholy, sore in his bones and relying on a cane for support.

And in the first 10 minutes of Up, the animators at Pixar managed to pump so much life and loss and love into him that my wife was already bawling, and I — the hardened macho man that I am — was swallowing every two and a half seconds to keep down the aching lump in my throat.

Carl Fredrickson is the eager-eyed boy who finds true love in a young neighborhood girl. They live happily ever after together, growing old while their dreams of adventure-seeking in South American are trumped by domestic reality. When his Ellie dies, Carl uses a flotilla of helium balloons to soar his entire home to an idyllic jungle vista and live out his wife’s fantasy.

That fervent tribute to a lost soulmate would have been a terrific movie. Being infatuated with my own wife of seven years, I was entirely emotionally vested in Carl. I would be a shell without my Lisa.

But instead of telling that simple story in an appropriate 30-minute short, Pixar needed to bow to the feature-length convention and pollute its heartfelt tale with a kid-friendly cast of zany secondary characters.

There is a Boy Scout who gets roped into Carl’s adventure, along with a talking dog, a monstrous tropical bird long thought to be extinct, a geriatric and insane villain, and an army of anthropomorphized canine killers. Every single one is superfluous to Carl’s emotional journey.

There’s also a load of cheap jokes imposed on an otherwise perfect tragedy.

Look, I understand that Pixar makes money by targeting the under-12 demographic. Without the cartoonish faux-suspense and bad guys, youngsters wouldn’t be hooked and they’d lose out on ticket sales. Children certainly not going to care for a script about growing old. And in the United States, we for some reason still relegate animation to the realm of adolescents; it’s not considered a valid art form for an over-50 audience, like Up should have been tailored to.

That really annoys me.

So instead of a literary tale, we get a beautiful story watered down by sentient canines flying biplanes that shoot darts. That really happens. It’s somewhat mitigated by a nifty Star Wars reference, but it was still gratuitous.

It will make hundreds of millions of dollars for Pixar. It will also serve as the perfect example of how pandering to multiple audience demographics can sully a piece of art.

Fortunately, the visual part of the art was in no way soiled. The lighting, shadowing, and color were astounding; we saw the 2D version of Up, and even without 3D glasses it still looked like ViewMaster slides put in motion and perfect focus. The character models looked at points like real-world puppetry.

That’s a big admission coming from me, because I am typically critical of computer-generated content. But CG has certainly advanced since the days of Toy Story. Here, some of the rocky South American landscapes look photorealistic (remember how bad the same textures were back in the days of The Last Starfighter?), and praise is certainly due.

Overall, I ardently recommend Up with just those few reservations. If it doesn’t get to you, then you are either too young or Vulcan. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a film many will pay to own on DVD, as most of the comments I heard on exiting the cinema were along the lines of, “It was terrific, but it was just too sad.”


Wallpaper of the Week: Devastator

May 11, 2009

devastator03
FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Maybe historians will call this The Summer of Nostalgia, or maybe I’m just getting to an age where I notice that everything old is new again.

I’m talking about movies, of course, and (as usual) about the resurgence of the 1980s pop culture I loved so much (to the point of wearing Optimus Prime Underoos as a five-year-old twerp).

This season sees a swell of iconic small-screen sensations at the cinema, with Star Trek, X-Men, Terminator, G.I. Joe, and Transformers getting franchise sequels and reboots. Fear not… The A-Team movie isn’t slated to launch until 2010.

I’ve already talked about the one that I think will be the biggest nerd-gasm of the bunch — Star Trek — but I’m getting more excited as Michael Bay and company leak an increasing number of teasers and stills from the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, due out June 24.

devastator01

Don’t get me wrong. I normally cringe at Bay’s name because he’s all about popcorn and explosions rather than characters and plot innovation. But giant robot movies aren’t about the later, and nobody should expect them to be. They are about enormous alien machines giving each other the smack-down and threatening the fate of Earth. Revenge of the Fallen will be about lasers and special effects. It’s not like the source material is a deep well of emotion that must be respected. So go Bay!

To rouse my enthusiasm, recent HD trailers for the film show the unmistakable form of Devastator, the giant combined robo-form of the evil Constructicons (see the very bottom image).

devastator04

I love seeing Devastator in the old Generation 1 cartoons. He was huge, lurching, animalistic and simple-minded as well as insanely powerful. He gave the Autobots a run for their money and shook up the internal Decepticon power structure. Plus, he boasted the same awesome baddy color scheme as the best of villains: Purple and green.

I never felt Devastator got enough love.

The Joker stylings are ditched in RotF in favor of a more naturalistic approach, and it’s impossible to tell from the trailers whether he’ll get even as much screen time as Scorponok did in the 2007 iteration.

devastator02

Either way, I’ve packaged up a few Devastator wallpapers here for you. I had to go a-hunting, because there really are very few large-scale Devy images on the web — and right now, they are all mostly pointed at the RotF concept art desktop (above). As always, they are in 1024 x 768 resolution.

Click the thumbnails in this post to enbiggen.


World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

May 2, 2009

zombies01

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.