Where the Wild Things Are
© Warner Bros. Pictures
When not rumpusing, Max and his Wild Thing friends peer into the darkness of their developing emotions.
Filmgoers expecting cheery rolic may be disappointed.
But this stunning, immersive experience does credit to
the classic. Check it out.
reviewed by Mark Burns ~ October 30, 2009
An adored children’s book unfolds to creative, insightful, yet heavy interpretation in this surprising film.
Max (Max Records: The Brothers Bloom) is a rambunctious boy. He crashes through the house in his wolf suit, threatens to devour his mom and wins exile for it. Alone, Max’s imagination sets him sailing to the island where the wild things live. He becomes king, declares rumpus and tears trough the jungle on a juvie bender.
But Max is also an introverted dynamo with a rich internal life, ricocheting in reaction to hurt feelings and going defiantly wild to steal attention from his mom’s boyfriend. As king, he learns the crown is heavy when his magical proclamations and rumbling fun aren’t the simple cure for wild-thing malaise. So the boy wrestles with empathy and vague, complicated emotions among his new friends. His journey deepens as he discovers the heart of love and friendship through and between bursts of impulse and consequence.
This might be expected. Author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who co-wrote the screenplay, mines grayer reaches than most. Here he puzzles at inferred depth in Maurice Sendak’s seed tale. Thus the screenplay, a condensed version of Eggers’ new novel The Wild Things, is an exploration of that moment of fear and wonder when the child’s mind expands beyond itself to grow up a little bit.
Expected or not, it’s stunning. Filmmakers might have failed had they tried to pander to disparate childhood memories of the book. Instead they challenge with adult interpretation. The story’s original elements are melded with fresh invention to put the substantial meat of a growing-up story on the bones of a deceptively simple picture book.
Said invention can drift to the dreary. Max’s new best friend stripey, maned, round-faced wild thing Carol (voice of James Gandolfini: The Sopranos) frequently goes glum from loneliness between tantrums and zen. He becomes the outward expression of Max’s own internal roil. Carol and the other wild things tend to cycle through a child’s daily phase, expending energy in a riotous explosion of joy before growing tired, cranky and pouty.
Records, as Max, makes the sell. The kid is deep, fluxing sympathetically through the highs and lows and knowing how to rumble like a kid in a wolf suit should. Music-video auteur Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) knows how to let the kid loose, and his aesthetic touch amplifies the fantastic and the emotion in just the right measures.
Filmgoers expecting cheery rolic may be disappointed. The film mulls and considers and challenges, occasionally to a fault. It seems better suited for grown fans than young ones. But it’s an immersive experience that does credit to the classic. Check it out.
Good mostly animated adventure • PG • 94 mins.
© Universal Pictures
The Wolfman provides some quality frights … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling.
There will be entrails.
reviewed by Mark Burns, February 18, 2010
Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro: Che) is a traveling actor, returned to the foggy moors of his family’s estate by news of his brother’s disappearance. When Lawrence discovers his brother’s grisly demise, he sets out to investigate. He’s prowling the moors for answers on a full-moon night when he is mauled. Lawrence will soon howl at the moon. Between rampages, he will fix his affection on his brother’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt: The Young Victoria), and seek revenge on the werewolf that turned him and killed his brother.
So plays this loose adaptation of 1941’s The Wolf Man, in which a guy named Larry goes home to Wales and is bitten in a scuffle with a werewolf. Parallels, nods and direct connections in the reprise offer touchstones of inspiration, sometimes even loyalty. Yet this one doesn’t quite follow.
To start, 1941’s harrow is not 2010’s horror. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry wrestled with the actor’s own German shepherd and staggered away hand-on-neck, insinuating the werewolf’s bite. Killings were hammy or vague; climactic cane beatings had the hero swinging away at something obscured by a dark tree. Here, Del Toro’s Lawrence is graphically mauled in the neck after watching the beast tear heads, limbs and fingers from other victims.
There will be entrails.
Such savagery crops up regularly throughout director Joe Johnston’s (Hidalgo) shadowy peek-a-boo. He’s done a decent job crafting fright. Classic monster-movie jump jolts and hunter’s stalk yield respectable suspense across an inky dark landscape shrouded by every available fog machine in Britain. The creepy mausoleum, wicked asylum and dilapidated hunter’s manse further elevate the brooding atmospherics.
The tale plays as more of a quiltwork of gnarly scenes than lucid story. There are a million delicious leads followed to nowhere. For instance, an asylum tangent serves little purpose other than to serve weak premise for shooting action scenes in London. A twist on the source’s father/son complication, if predictable, has promise. Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins: Beowulf) might have made for meaty intrigue. But it’s squandered by fractious distraction. And romance with the brother’s fiancée crops up out of nowhere.
The Wolfman is good for a few jolts executed in bold visuals. There are quality frights to be had … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling. This dog is feral, an unrefined mauler, in spite of its Victorian airs. But then, that might be enough.
Fair horror • R • 102 mins.
World Trade Center
Oliver Stone divines a glint of the positive among the wreckage of September 11 in this poignant true tale.
reviewed by Mark Burns
On September 11, a small group of first responders from the Port Authority Police Department, led by Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage), are gathering supplies for a rescue effort when the first Trade Center tower collapses on top of them. Miraculously, McLoughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) survive, trapped in the rubble of an elevator shaft in an underground concourse. In the film, Oliver Stone explores their stories from just before the attack through their rescue, showing the disaster from the point of view of the men, their families and, to a lesser extent, their rescuers.
Every facet of the film’s story is relating direct accounts of the people involved. It’s an intimate portrait of a boggling disaster, and its firsthand perspective is a jolting reminder of the human toll. While intense, director Oliver Stone is measured with his representation. His film picks at a partially formed emotional scab until the wound stings, then blows on it a little with its positive themes of heroism, survival and hope.
To this end, Stone avoids overwhelming with a direct-from-CNN replay of the calamity. The silhouette of an incoming plane sweeps over the cityscape and a scarred tower is shown looming over the streets, but moments of impact and distant views of collapse are never shown. Most footage of the smoking towers is seen indirectly through glimpses of recycled news footage. Stone instead sticks to the officers’ perspective as they are rattled by the shockwave of first impact and jolted by the collapse of the towers.
Traces of Stone’s stylistic touch can be seen early on, but once disaster strikes it evaporates in his effort to be sensitive to the story. His provocative nature is absent, instead offering an apolitical view via straight storytelling. It’s such a straight recitation that some film buffs may fault it as uncreative.
In a sense the film is an oddity, a Stone picture that plays like a Hallmark feature: a tale of heavily emotional sentimentalism sound-tracked with the sad tinkling of a solitary piano chord. Still, it’s a mighty punch in the gut. Stone and his actors capture the pain and confusion of the moment to wrenching effect and easily absorb viewers into the swell of emotion. In particular, the ordeal of the two officers at the movie’s backbone is stirring and relatable as the men struggle to survive through shock, pain, flashbacks and visions. But the film is challenged in its attempts at weaving in the tales of other rescuers, namely former marine Dave Karnes and the Wisconsin officers who came to assist recovery. Their contributions are of note but nearly get lost in the prevailing story.
As for the controversy over whether it’s too soon for World Trade Center (or spring’s United 93, for that matter), that’s a personal call. But consider the oft-compared tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Just one day after the sneak attack, 20th Century Fox started production on the slapdash melodrama Secret Agent of Japan in a stated effort to be the first studio to use the attack in a film. The ensuing Hollywood scramble pumped out a total of five Pearl Harbor-themed dramas within a year’s time. Against such precedent, the timing and tone of this year’s September 11 dramas shows restraint.
This is no cinematic masterpiece, but its insights make for a poignant and gripping film. Not to mention exhausting. It’s one worth watching, at some point.
Good Drama • PG-13 • 125 mins.