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.


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.