Where the Wild Things Are

October 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener
Directed by: Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”)
Written by: Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”)
 
Not since director Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” in 1995 has a film captured the vastness of a child’s emotional scope than Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, the film is an artistic and extraordinarily expressive fantasy that evokes the complexities of life through a misunderstood nine-year-old boy named Max (Max Records).
 
Max is angry. His igloo fortress has been demolished by his older sister’s friends, his science teacher just announced to his class that sometime in the distant future the sun is going to die, and the family dog won’t stay put long enough for Max to get him in a good headlock.
 
Max’s resentment boils over when his mother (Catherine Keener) seems more interested in spending time with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) rather than going upstairs to look at the bed-sheet fort he has built in his room. The snub prompts Max to toss on his wolfish pajamas and cause a dysfunctional family scene in front of his mother’s company.
 
Enraged, Max runs out of the house and through the neighborhood until he reaches a rickety sailboat that will inevitably wash up on the shore of a dreamlike island inhabited by a pack of, well, wild things.

The creatures, portrayed fantastically by visionary director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and Jim Henson Shop designers, stomp, growl, and destroy things with the best of them, but there’s also a softer side to these characters that enhances Sendak’s nine-sentenced book. Not long before Max makes his introduction to them, the wild things crown him king after his exaggerated storytelling impresses them. The script, penned by Jonze and Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”), bristles with well-written dialogue as Max holds casual conversations during his stay on the island.

Each furry beast has his or her own personality and shares some of those traits with Max. All of them are disheartened in some way, including Carol (James Gandolifini), who is to Max what the Scarecrow was to Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Their bond grows as Max instructs all the monsters to – brace yourself for the main plot of the film – build a colossal fort where they can all live together as one big family.

The storyline, however, isn’t what makes “Wild Things” one of the most remarkable and daring family films of the last decade (although one could argue most kids are really not going to be able to wrap their heads around the more philosophical scenes in the movie). Instead, it’s Jonze’s seamless attention to the affecting relationships Max is experiencing in his parallel worlds that makes “Wild Things” truly memorable.

The entire film speaks on a metaphorical level that is imaginative and disturbing. There’s no easy answer to the sadness Max or the wild things are feeling. Jonze and Eggers don’t pretend to have one either.  At his core, Max just wants to feel safe. It’s unexpected that he would find this amongst animals who, at any given time, could swallow him whole or crush him as they horseplay.

Minimal in delivery and heavy on melancholy and themes related to loneliness and sorrow, “Wild Things,” which took more than five years to complete, is worth every second Jonze spent creating this new classic tale. It’s far removed from Hollywood and is every bit hopeful and painful as the most perceptive mind could imagine.

Away We Go

June 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney
Directed by: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”)
Written by: Dave Eggers (debut) and Vendela Vida (debut)

It’s definitely a different type of relationship dynamic from Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes whose last film was the underappreciated “Revolutionary Road” of last year. In “Away We Go,” Mendes rediscovers his dark comedy pedigree that made him so successful with 1999’s Best Picture winner “American Beauty,” to tell the story of a young, directionless couple trying to find their place in the world.

When the grandparents of their first child decide to move to Belgium, unmarried parents-to-be Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) realize there’s nothing holding them back from packing up and relocating anywhere they’d like to go. Although they “don’t have the basic stuff figured out” in their lives, Burt and Verona see the spontaneous adventure as a way to start on a clean slate.

Making stops in a few cities where they know people (somehow they can afford a cross-country tour by plane but sulk over a cardboard window in their house), Burt and Verona are interested in seeing how well they might fit in places like Phoenix, Arizona, Madison, Wisconsin, and Montreal, Canada. They meet up with a former co-worker (Allison Janney plays a vulgar mother who accuses her pre-teen daughter of being lesbian) and a long-time hippy friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is offended by strollers (“Why would I want to push my baby away from me?”) and believes it is normal to have sex in front of their children.

Needless to say, Burt and Verona have a difficult time connecting to anyone on their trip, especially since first-time screenwriters and real-life couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida write the duo like a pair of self-important hipsters who know they’re more intelligent and witty that everyone else on the face of the planet. It’s an interesting characterization because the two are the sanest of the bunch, but there’s always an underlying feeling that if you were to meet the couple socially they’re mellow oddness would wear thin.

That’s what happens in “Away We Go,” but not before a few tender moments and subtle quirkiness. It’s when the eccentricities of the characters become excessively heavy for the screen when Eggers, Vida, and Mendes lose control. The film doesn’t have a lot of unnatural dialogue like “Juno,” which was generally a very likeable movie, but thematically it’s burdened with an overall artificial ambiance that comes off far too cartoonish despite the occasional charm.