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.


Read This: VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums

June 30, 2009

100greatestFROM JASON’S HESITANCE — Let’s get this clear up front: Normally, I wouldn’t rely on VH1 as the arbiter of taste. And usually I wouldn’t bother with a coffee table book, let alone recommend it.

But as I thumbed through this one while standing over the $2 clearance bin at Barnes & Noble, I realized that these pastiches were the story of my youth. They were the time-warped-and-faded record covers my dad played over and over as he burned through turntable needles like matchsticks.

In case you’ve never tried, let me explain that writing about music is very difficult. But here are compiled novelists’, biographers’, journalists’, VH1 produces’, songwriters’, and DJs’ insights and warm memories of how everyone from the King of Rock to the King of Pop to the King of Soul changed everything. And in-between, there are odes to Bowie, Aretha, u2,  Radiohead, Bob Marley, Jeff Buckley, NWA, AC/DC, Kraftwerk, Van Morrison, The Beastie Boys, Otis Redding… well, I’m not going to list all of them.

The rankings aren’t arbitrary — they were voted upon (in 2003) by 700 industry insiders “from Art Garfunkel to Britney Spears” and including radio programmers, critics, and disc jockeys.

The unmitigated victors, of course, and as they should be, are The Beatles, who in the countdown seal four of the top 10 spots (with a fifth album ranking in at number 11). I can hardly argue with reviewer Eric Wybenga’s praise of Revolver‘s sitar-versus-backmasking eclecticism, or editor Jacob Hoye’s colorful comparisons of Abbey Road to both Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein in the same breath.

It’s not a perfect list by any means, but that can be expected of direct democracy. Nevermind is sort of self-consciously thrust into the number two spot ahead of Pet Sounds (a travesty, possibly a capital offense), while Thriller, the dominant force in my life circa 1985-1995, ranks a lowly number 23. I don’t want to stoop to an ad populum fallacy here, but it’s the best-selling album of all time for a good reason; it could have easily replaced Joni Mitchell’s Blue at the 14 spot, or The Joshua Tree at 15. RIP, Michael.

Dark Side of the Moon, which I consider the most cohesive album and certainly the best concept album, didn’t hit the top 50. Crime. Meanwhile, Appetite for Destruction hit number 42 to edge out both Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II (Physical Graffiti also makes the list even further down).

The Pixies — who more than Nirvana birthed the alternative genre — do not even make the list. Enough said. Conversely, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer cripple the list by even being there.

All that aside, what make VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums work are the stories.

There are the historical looks at Fleetwood Mac’s tragically romantic entanglements (Rumours chronicles the break-ups of John and Christine McVie and of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). There are musings on how Public Enemy’s potent rhymes about the black expierience really scared white parents on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. There’s the utter godsmacked-ness over how Stevie Wonder played every single instrument — no outside help at all — on Innervisions. And there’s writer Matthew Specktor’s almost embarrassingly personal essay on how he discovered Tom Verlaine’s “thyroidal singing” on Television’s Marquee Moon.

I could go on, gushing about the treatment of Sex Machine and Mothership Connection and Astral Weeks and Abraxas. But there’s too much too cover — just read it.


Read This: On a Pale Horse

June 22, 2009

palehorse01FROM JASON’S TRIP TO HALF PRICE BOOKS — Just ignore for a moment that On a Pale Horse is written by one Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, author of those hideous Xanth novels.

Up front: It has flaws. It’s simplistic to a Da Vinci Code fault, clearly pointed at the young adult audience. You get the impression that it was written in one long incense-fueled sitting, and the whole mass simply congealed on the pages. On a Pale Horse isn’t style over substance; it’s concept over substance.

I’m not doing a hot job of selling it, am I?

Still, it has its novelties, and that’s why I was willing to spend $3.56 to own it (can I plug Half Price Books any more ardently?).

Anthony does something quite rare; he writes into a unique niche I’ll call science fantasy, or sci-fa. The most interesting conceit of his Incarnations of Immortality series (of which this is book one) is the world in which it is set — a modern mirror Earth where dark magic is employed alongside nuclear energy. Where soldiers fired spells as well as bullets during World War II. Where car manufacturers compete for customers with flying carpet makers. Where Satan’s marketing department wages a massive billboard PR campaign for Hell. Where succubi can be had (for a price) and computer programs can summon demons.

Anthony does such an excellent job of fusing arcane arts, monsters, skyscrapers, and technology (early 1980s tech, anyway) that it many times overshadows the adolescent dialogue and clunky plot dynamics. Not all the time, mind you, but enough of a Band-Aid to pull it out of the proverbial hellfire.

The premise: Young Zane (an 80s name if ever I heard one) manages to shoot and kill the personification of Death and, just like in The Santa Clause, must take his place. Zane travels the world on his titular steed, harvesting the souls that are in perfect balance between good and evil and deciding whether those souls should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Thanks to the meddling of other Incarnations — War, Fate, Nature, and Time — he becomes ensnared in a plot by Satan to kick-start World War III.

Think Death Takes a Holiday on a Harry Potter level, but without the depth.

Again, I know I’m not being very persuasive on behalf of On a Pale Horse, and I do apologize. But my feelings on this one are complicated. While Anthony’s style is oversimplified and sometimes even vacant, I am completely taken with the idea of an anthropomorphic Death who exercises choice, and has personality, compassion, and rules.

Here’s a Death who struggles with the ethics of mercy killings (incredibly progressive for 1982), rails against the rules God’s instituted for original sin, goes on strike, and isn’t afraid to rescue a select few “clients” who he believes are getting shafted by Fate.

And hey — Zane even loosely inspired Bryan Fuller’s Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me on Showtime, which featured similar Grim Reapers working the Seattle area. That’s got to count for something.

So this review was less than glowing. Not everything on my bookshelf is literary gold. If you’re interested, then do what I did — read it in an airport.


’21st Century Breakdown’ doesn’t do much new

June 20, 2009

greenday01FROM SAIL’S EIGHT-TRACK PLAYER — Listen: I am swamped with schoolwork right now. This weekend alone I have to compile a 16-page document on various political topics, finish the first draft of a short story that I have no ideas for, and begin a 10-page paper on education reform.

But instead, for your morbid amusement, I’ve decided that I need to sit through Green Day’s new album, 21st Century Breakdown, in order to be able articulate exactly why I don’t like it.

The reviews have been outrageous. Kerrang! somehow compares this incredibly clean and radio-friendly pop-punk sound with NoFX’s dirty and in your face political thrashings. AbsolutePunk, a source I’ve generally come to trust, admits that the record is nearly identical to their previous one, American Idiot, while still giving it a glowing score of 91/100. Similarly, Rolling Stone gave it 4.5 stars out of 5 while also saying that the music sounds like they’re trying too hard. My own school newspaper compared it to London Calling.

Fuck. I guess I’ve gotta hear this.

10:05 pm – Six tracks in and I’m regretting this decision. It’s not the ear-bleeding brand of terrible, but it’s exceedingly mediocre and unoriginal. Also, [bassist] Mike Dirnt’s playing is ridiculously mixed out.

Miss you, Dookie.

10:14 pm – It’s like Billie Joe has become a parody of himself. He took the idea that people think he writes songs with cheesy lyrics and no more than four chords… and then actually did it.

10:16 pm – “Peacemaker” is actually kind of interesting.

10:22 pm – Too many of these songs sound exactly the same. Or exactly the same as songs on American Idiot.

10:26 pm – Some of this guitar playing makes me seriously doubt [guitarist] Billie Joe’s skill as a musician. I mean, I know he must have the potential, but he’s really just not using it. Tre isn’t an amazing drummer, but he’s always been good enough. I’m disappointed in Mike’s bass playing on a few songs for being a lot more simplistic than usual, but I’m more disappointed about how hard you have to listen in order to hear the better stuff he’s doing.

“Restless Hear Syndrome” is another interesting track. Everyone who likes this album seems to be talking about how much more “mature” it sounds, but I’m really just not hearing it at all, aside from this and “Peacemaker.” And two tracks out of 18 isn’t enough to call a record mature. If anything, this music strikes me as more obnoxious and immature than ever.

I’m going to have to listen to some major Operation Ivy to cleanse my ears after this is all over. Remember when Green Day sounded like OI? Yeah, me too.

10:51 pm – Verdict: A definitive “ick”.

Some may define this record as Green Day’s growing up, and that’s fine with me. I’m not one of those people who is going to bitch about a band or artist changing their sound or getting more popular. Usually, it’s a better thing for everyone involved if the artist doesn’t feel restricted to make the same music that made them famous. But 21st Century Breakdown is just a plan poorly executed.


‘Up’ is a beautiful downer you should see

May 29, 2009

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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.”


Elton John and Billy Joel: It’s still rock and roll to me

May 24, 2009

FROM JASON’S TICKET STUB — We followed the tide of aging men and their clean-cut cougar wives Saturday night from the halls of Cleveland’s Tower City, through the Gateway tunnel, and into The Q.

Everywhere we looked, there were polo shirts.

I quipped at one point that the security guards might single me out as suspicious since I don’t have a bald spot — the one thing almost every other man in the horde had in common. I’m a walking Rogaine commercial; each of my hairs has its own head of hair.

We laughed at the expense of the nearby 50-somethings, but my joke led me to wonder silently whether as 29-year-olds we’d be relevant at this concert. After all, there were very few people under 40 in the mass of 20,000 who crowded into the arena to see Sir Elton John and Billy Joel.

We felt isolated.

That changed when the lights came up and two concert pianos rose through the floor to settle on the stage. Here were two rock gods sitting (about a football field’s length) before us, perhaps the greatest musical geniuses of their era. I had listened to their songs hundreds and hundreds of times. Nevermind that their tunes had been repackaged into greatest hits compilations by the time I was ready to understand their tales of love, loss, pain, and triumph. These two pianists were my bards.

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We were perched at the front of the second-floor balcony, a long (as the picture shows) way from the action. But it almost felt like I was stage-side as Sir Elton (at 62 years old) did a risky handstand on his piano. Meanwhile, Joel (50) mixed it up with bawdy jokes and some acrobatic mic stand-twirling drills.

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I got my money’s worth. It was all I could do not to mist over in nostalgic elation seeing these legends belt out Benny and the Jets, Rocket Man, We Didn’t Start the Fire, and Piano Man. But I’m a man, so I kept it all inside. I’m also stupidly puritan, so I refrained from the drunken dancing the guppies were engaged in all around the arena.

Besides, I have little to no rhythm.

I like to think that what I lack in body-movin’ I make up for in analysis. When not reveling in the light show — which was amazing — I starting comparing and contrasting John’s and Joel’s performances.

My conclusion: Billy Joel is the winner (if it were a competition).

Joel’s portfolio is more technically dynamic, building on horns and complex counter-timing and overall musicality. John instead presents very simple, heartfelt melodies built on the backs of blues riffs. Johns’ style might be more effective in reaching his audience and building their time-tested loyalty (he received far more applause), but Joels’ sounds were better.

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There was also a marked difference between the way the two giants metered out their energy during the concert. Joel compacted his into tight upgrades on the studio versions, while John elongated his standards into captivating, looping jams.

Regardless of who “won,” both men’s styles are remnants of a day when popular music engaged listeners by using something called “talent,” coupled with something called “innovation.” There is a dearth of such novelties in today’s clutch of cloned-sounding FM bar chords, howling vocals, distortion, and pop-princess bubblegum crap.

I just wish that the music of these two heroes wouldn’t be relegated to the murky realms of “adult contemporary” radio. John and Joel used to be revolutionaries. They were the rebellious young rockers. In their time, they were the ones bringing a crude new noise to challenge the old “good” music.

I don’t want them to be oldies.


Gurren Lagann believes in the me that believes its robots are awesome

May 23, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FROM JASON’S RANDOM POWER-UP — So there’s this kid, see. And he’s human. And he really, really believes in himself.

In the far-flung future, that kind of self-confidence has replaced fossil fuels and is used to run the giant robots that have replaced cars. Living underground has replaced mankind’s expansion into space. Meanwhile, evil alien beast-men have replaced the Internal Revenue Service as mankind’s greatest foe.

So, just to pre-cap here, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is about Ma-Ti from Captain Planet using the power of spirit to force his Transformers Headmaster to combine with Voltron and defeat BattleBeasts ruled by those aliens from V in a huge manifest destiny showdown for a Mad Max planet.

Or something.

lagann01Sounds pretty zany, huh? Well, at times it is, almost to the verge of spoofing every other giant-robo-shonen show out there. But Gurren Lagann takes care to mock its own genre and break some of the old conventions, including taking a wrenchingly brave turn by killing off a charismatic hero in early episodes.

It was that move that convinced me there was more to Lagann than its madcap earnestness — that there was a stoic story hiding under the fluff, V-wing sunglasses, fan service, and comically large drills.

Believe me, you’ll like the drills — especially when our protagonist pulls his GIGA DRILL BREAKER!!! finishing move by sprouting a borer as large as his robot’s entire body. There’s absolutely no phallic subtext there. Nope.

Yes, there are still the shonen stand-bys: last-second power-ups to unleash inner power and defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Sudden new robot transformations. Shouting the names of attacks as they are performed. The linear appearance of progressively stronger enemies. Some scantily-clad warrior babes.

But these cliches are delivered with enough of a wink at the camera, are punctuated roundly enough by truly gut-sinking tragedy, and filled with enough fist-pumping rock-soundtrack victory moments that you hardly notice. It also helps that Lagann has ditched the tendency of shows such as, say, Bleach, to obsess over a single battle for six or seven episodes. Simon the Digger’s battles are concise but epic.

The result is that the Gainax ‘toon so far has managed to draw a comfortable median between buffoonery and profoundness without choking on its own gravity.

It’s also demonstrated the rare ability to get me rowdy and cheering for the characters, mainly by tapping into that corner of my mind still hooked on the cheese and machismo of 1980s action flicks where good guys exploded the bad guys in the name of justice.

It cribs equal parts from The A-Team and Robotech with that old message: You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as your guns are big enough and your soundtrack is rockin’ enough. Determination, the show says, is the most deadly weapon, and it’s what separates the humans from the aliens. More than anything, the Japanese seem to worship the virtue of an untempered resolve.

Untempered resolve and jiggling boobies. In Japan, there is always a Yoko. I mean, the number of butt-cheek and cleavage shots here are embarrassing, and are clearly intended to bring the horny 13-year-old audience into the fold. The resulting fan art has strained Rule 34 to a breaking point.

All that considered, I give Lagann a big score, as it’s the first anime in about two years that’s actually coerced me to watch more than four episodes. Given its flash and dazzle, which is more in the writing than the at-times shoddy animation (see the infamous episode four), it will probably lodge itself in my top 10 anime list somewhere just above Tenchi Muyo and right below Outlaw Star.