This may sound a little sad, but I don't really remember what it was like to be a kid. Ironic, considering how many people have noted that I've failed to completely grow up. But one of the things I do remember, though, was seeing Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I say "seeing" because I'm fairly sure I wasn't able to read yet.
Gazing at those pictures of horned, yellow-eyed, monsters and the little boy who left his home to become their king, I created my own motives for the art at which I was looking. I really don't remember. But it's plain, in adapting Where the Wild Things Are for the screen, that director Spike Jonze used the books mere 10 lines of text as an armature on which to build a beautiful film that is all his own.
Max (Max Records) is a 9-year-old boy who we find living with his single mother (Catherine Keener) and his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs). Max is lonely and temperamental. His sister is older and would rather spend time with her friends. His mom, while trying to be attentive, has her hands full trying to keep them all in hearth and home. So Max takes refuge in his imagination, crafting stories and characters to keep him company in his solitude.
One winter day he creates a makeshift igloo from a pile of snow on the street corner; and after instigating a (not entirely friendly) snowball fight with his sister's friends, finds it crashing down on him after they dog pile on top of his frozen sanctuary.
Out of spite, he trashes his sister's room. Max is an angry kid, but he doesn't see it as his fault. The real world is intruding on his childhood, and he's helpless to stop it. When Max vies for his mother's attention one night as she cooks dinner, his acting out causes him to go one step too far and hurt her. Horrified, he runs away into the woods where he finds a shoreline and a small boat, in which he immediately sets sail.
After traversing a wide ocean, he comes to a strange island populated by 10-foot tall, fur covered monsters called Wild Things. He's immediately tickled by seeing one of them, Carol, (James Gandolfini) making a game out of destroying the homes of the other Wild Things. Max joins in, only to find that these monsters would just as soon eat him as be his friends. So Max spins them a tale of his adventures as King of the Vikings and convinces them that he has what it takes to be King of the Wild Things. They reluctantly agree, and after crowning Max, ask what he commands. Of course, the first order of business is to have a Rumpus.
What follows, however, is another-worldly, cinematic grimoire of melancholy enchantments.
Spike Jonze (directing from the script he co-wrote with Dave Eggers) takes the spare narrative of Sendak's book and crafts a dark, dream-like story of a boy using his imagination to soften the blow of the end of his childhood.
All of the Wild Things represent some part of Max's id, though mostly through Carol, and his anger. KW (Lauren Ambrose) is a mirror of Max's mother who clearly loves Carol but is frustrated by his temperamental actions. Others, like Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and Douglas (Chris Cooper), are the personifications of his nascent maturity; the grudgingly acknowledged voices of adult skepticism and common sense. If that sounds like heady material for a children's film it's because it is. Where the Wild Things Are is the strangest, artiest children's film I've seen since 1974's The Little Prince.
The film is brought to life not only by Jonze's whimsical script, but also his assured direction and lush, hand-held, cinematography; all of which capture twilight-laden moments and images that are fiercely beautiful and foreboding. Created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the Wild Things themselves are, thankfully, works of practical FX artistry that are minimally assisted by some seamless CGI.
Of course all the technical wizardry in the world can't help a film with nothing to say, or the talented actors to say it. Fortunately, Where the Wild Things Are has both in spades. I don't know if anyone has ever been nominated for Best Actor based on their voice-work alone, but James Gandolfini's performance as Carol surely deserves consideration. This film could have been a radio play and his character would still have been fully realized.
Max Records has an almost preternatural ability in front of the camera. I never once caught myself second-guessing this kid or his choices. He plays Max with an assurance that speaks to a keen intellect being nurtured by Jonze's deft eye for performance. The rest of the voice cast is given equal care, and all the voice actors give naturalistic performances, in lieu of cartoonish exaggeration. Catherine Keener brings a forlorn gravitas to her turn as Max's mom that is tempered by her unconventional beauty. And the icing on the cake is the great soundtrack provided by Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-woman Karen O with her collaborators, The Kids. It captures the films sense of glory and trepidation with equally playful and abstract music.
If I were to offer any criticisms of this film at all they'd probably lie in the marketing. Most children's films are directly aimed at them, with subtexts and in-jokes written in for the parents in the audience. Where the Wild Things Are is clearly not meant for young children as much as the adults who brought them to the theater.
Sure there are big, mostly convivial muppets that sometimes jump around and make merry, but the film's themes are meant for a kid of a certain age and intellect. The visual aesthetic of Where the Wild Things Are speaks more to someone who relishes cinema-vérité rather than bright, crisp, computer animated spectacle. During its darkest passages I imagine very young kids would have the shit scared out of them. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The Little Prince scared me. And I remember it to this day.
Law Abiding Citizen
I almost didn't bother with Law Abiding Citizen based on the lackluster trailers. I'm kind of glad I had a change of heart, though. While the film isn't going to wind up on anybody's Top 10 lists at the end of the year, Law Abiding Citizen ends up being a perfectly acceptable and surprisingly fun, popcorn-munching thriller. Just don't think about it too hard.
Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a retired, loving husband and father who takes up his spare time designing mechanical gadgetry. The film gets right down to business when Clyde answers a knock at the door only to be given the bums rush by a couple of home invaders who incapacitate him and then murder his wife and child.
The killers are apprehended but, due to a evidentiary foul up, the ladder-climbing prosecutor on the case, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), is forced to cop a deal with one of the killers (actually the killer, his accomplice was too squeamish to get his hands dirty) as opposed to trying them both and risking a black mark on his near flawless record of convictions. This clearly doesn't sit well with Shelton. Rice cuts the deal despite his desperate plea for justice.
Flash forward 10 years later. The accomplice to the murder of Shelton's family is finally in the death chamber. Rice is there to witness the proceedings but is shocked when, instead of a painless execution, the lethal injection wracks the condemned with excruciating pain. It seems the pentothal was mysteriously switched out for something a little more gruesome.
Rice suspects that the killer who copped the plea bargain was responsible, and they move to arrest him, but the killer, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) is tipped off by a mysterious phone call that guides him to a police car with a sleeping cop inside. He grabs the officer's gun and forces him to drive to a derelict warehouse. But instead of administering the coup de grâce, some nifty needles embedded in the gun grip inject Darby with a paralyzing poison. The cop, it turns out, is Shelton. And he has some plans for Darby. When the police find what's left of him, Rice puts two and two together and they arrest Shelton. And thus begins a game of cat and mouse.
It isn't Shakespeare, but it works as pure entertainment. Directed with workman-like efficiency by F. Gary Gray (Friday) from a script by gun-kata maestro Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium), Law Abiding Citizen is a deftly paced, fun, little bit of genre escapism. Buoyed by the capable performances of Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, the films crackling pace and loopy conceit were enjoyable enough to keep one from dwelling too much on the myriad holes and unlikely situations in Wimmer's script.
The subtexts concerning the state of civil liberties and the justice system reach near comical levels of obviousness, such as it taking a decade for a guilty man to be executed; or when the presiding judge seems willing to release Shelton on procedural grounds despite the fact he had offered to confess to murder.
But this isn't a message movie; it's a crime thriller with some neat kills, and I forgive a lot for a good neck shanking. Despite the relatively on-the-rails plot, there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing (or at least interested) without making you feel stupid when the resolution strains suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The sumptuous cinematography by Jonathan Sela (Midnight Meat Train) evokes a '70s look that complements the pulpy nature of the proceedings; and makes Law Abiding Citizen worth a look on the big screen. Though if you waited for the DVD it wouldn't be crime.
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